Dads are really taking it on the chin this season (see “The Heiress”), none more so than Hank, the mackintosh-wrapped sad-sack trying hard to connect with his estranged teenage daughter in “What Rhymes With America.”
Melissa James Gibson’s funny and engaging, if acrid, play at the Atlantic Theater Co. begins with Hank and daughter Marlene on either side of an invisible door.
By the time the door opens just a crack in another conversation 90 minutes later, Hank has been exposed as a loser with anger management issues.
Played by Chris Bauer (Andy Bellefleur on “True Blood”), he’s a shlub who can’t do anything right. An economist without portfolio, his zero-success prediction rate has sunk his marriage and access to research funding.
Booted out and penniless, he can come up with all of $6 when Marlene asks for the $240 he owes her in back allowance.
Gibson gives him a saving grace, however: In his bountiful spare time, Hank is an extra at the opera, where he has befriended Sheryl, an aspiring actress. She’s played by the wonderful Da’Vine Joy Randolph, who made a big splash last season in the very terrible “Ghost.”
In their first scene together on Laura Jellinek’s stark multi-purpose set, Hank and Marlene appear in Valkyrie regalia with horned helmets and furry tunics, puffing away during a break and discussing life in non-operatic terms. In another scene they continue their conversation as Egyptian slaves from “Aida.”
These interludes provide relief from Hank’s desperate efforts to move on with his life.
As Marlene, Aimee Carrero has the vacant look of a girl who’s lost her moorings. But she’s spookily articulate and the folksongs she writes and performs are brittle and sad. She wants to love her father despite his giving her every reason to turn and run.
In one of the more humiliating scenes I’ve watched on stage, Hank picks up a grieving, damaged woman (the affecting Seana Kofoed) at the hospital where Marlene volunteers.
As their lovemaking heats up in his shabby room, he takes a call from his ex-wife that quickly escalates into angry shouts, as he pleads with her to take him back while the woman finally beats a horrified retreat.
Daniel Aukin has staged Gibson’s dark ride with levity and sympathy for everyone -- even unlikable Hank. It’s a pleasure to hear such a strong new voice.
Through Dec. 30 at the Atlantic Theater Company, 336 W. 20th St. Information: +1-212-279-4200; http://www.ticketcentral.com. Rating: ***1/2
What the Stars Mean: ***** Fantastic **** Excellent *** Good ** So-So * Poor (No stars) Avoid
(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include Jason Harper on cars and Rich Jaroslovsky on tech.