Reality bites

Pub date February 16, 2010
WriterRobert Avila

THEATER Feb. 5 saw a varied but collectively incensed body of American conservatives unfurl itself all red-white-and-blue in Nashville’s Gaylord Opryland Hotel for the first Tea Party Nation convention. The delegates, dubbed “teabaggers” by media wags and hailing from all parts of the land, responded enthusiastically to a keynote speech bewailing the “Islamification” of a nation overrun by foreigners and subverted from within by the Obama administration, the green movement, and the “cult of multiculturalism.”

Many in the Bay Area might look upon such a grouping, and the groundswell it purports to represent, with a vaguely uneasy sense of amusement, not to say superiority. But the name itself begs the question: are these people really patriots, or just pudheads? Maybe the only thing to do is gas up and head out for some reconnaissance. After all, there’s a legitimate wave of anger across the downsized middle of this otherwise clinically obese country, and it behooves us smug coastal dwellers to know something about it.

Or better idea: let Dan Hoyle go and report back from the stage. Like many a 20-something seeker before him, the restlessly peripatetic San Francisco–based writer-performer set out last year in a custom van to, as he put it in one of his dispatches to the San Francisco Chronicle, “find out what makes America’s heartland tick.” What he discovered during the three-month, 27-state odyssey may not be all that surprising in the end — indeed, the liberal biases Hoyle looks to complicate come back more or less intact — but it makes for a deft, sharply funny, and entirely engaging night of theater.

In the episodes brought to theatrical life here — astutely and meticulously shaped in collaboration with director Charlie Varon (Rabbi Sam) and reminiscent of the humanist satire of Garry Trudeau — Hoyle heads out from his charmingly incongruous but insular circle of friends (and their “liberal bubble”) straight to Texas, where he joins hands in mealtime prayer with a born-again Vietnam vet and his family, including a grandson about to ship off to Iraq with the Marines.

The dinner conversation is largely devoted to a defense of creationist history: “Now,” his kindly host asks with rhetorical relish, “How did Noah fit all those dinosaurs in the ark?” Afterward, Hoyle deflects a postprandial pass from the man’s son, who’s clearly surprised a guy from San Francisco could ever be so straight. Retreating to his van, Dan is not above doing some praying of his own, including hoping for the safety of the young soldier about to do “what I could never do” in Iraq.

Then it’s off to Alabama, Hoyle toggling expertly between, on the one hand, the casual racism of a moonshine-sipping paraplegic ex-trucker and his apologetic wife, and, on the other, an African American casino worker and ex-con (“livin’ the mutherfuckin’ American dream”) who expounds with gritty eloquence upon the impact of Obama on white and black minds.

Reagan Democrats, gun-show vendors, and aging Midwestern hippies-turned-reactionaries, among others, all lie on the road ahead. Hoyle finds much to sympathize with and honor along the way — an all-American cross-cultural encounter related by Ramón, a Dominican from New York whom Hoyle meets in Michigan, is particularly supple and hopeful — but the going is rough. Frequently Hoyle gives vent to his frustration in song, picking up the guitar and letting go a melodic tirade of inspired lyricism. “Americans” is pervaded with a sense of the playwright’s own loneliness, a frustrated desire for connection in the face of a reactionary populism that will not meet an earnest liberal halfway.

Maybe there is no halfway? Or maybe a halfway line requires more rigorous interrogation of the play’s own political assumptions. That might have cast the ideological landscape in a somewhat different light. After all, the widespread conviction that Obama is a “Moozlum” is one thing; a more general distrust of the state and big business as dangerously encroaching powers is another.


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