Theatre Du Jour’s Nightmeria makes its intentions clear even before the first line is spoken. When entering the performance space, audience members are not greeted by friendly ushers but uniformed security personnel, metal detectors in hand. Once inside, you’re met with two flight attendants fixed with eerily vacant smiles and set against massive projections of the stars and stripes.
It’s a clever ploy that forces you to simultaneously confront an unpleasant aspect of the American experience as well as the unblinking patriotism often trotted out to assuage your discomfort. For the next 75 minutes the piece attempts to highlight other disquieting inconsistencies that underlie American social and political discourse. Unfortunately, nothing that follows is as effective or witty as the opening set piece.
Structured as a series of thematically related skits interspersed with flashy multimedia interludes, the work approaches its subject from a variety of different angles. The play deftly jumps from absurdist sketches, to pop culture parodies, to musical satires, keeping each new act coming at a steady clip.
If the burlesque-inspired recapping of European colonialism doesn’t suit your taste, fear not, there’s a two-man comedy routine just around the corner. The result is a motley mix of tableaux enthusiastically acted by a capable and genuinely likeable cast.
The problem comes with the actual content. If the goal was to reveal the cultural waters we’re all swimming in, we must be wallowing in a particularly shallow puddle. A lot of the arguments made by the work add up to nothing more than caricatures of non-liberal viewpoints and warmed-over commentary on American mythology that wouldn’t be new to any teen not the product of homeschooling.
I’ll concede that there are people out there who would be shocked by the idea that Davy Crockett’s theme song is a whitewashed picture of Manifest Destiny. However, chances are they’re not going to be part of the self-selected crowd at a fringe arts festival. As one multimedia interlude helpfully points out, Superman and Captain America may have jingoistic overtones—you don’t have to be faster than a speeding bullet to have already caught that one.
The fact that Nightmerica is preaching to the choir is only compounded by the fact that at some points it’s too lazy to even preach well. In one act, staged like a pundit-hosted interview segment, a send-up of a right-wing author expounds on how facts only get in the way of the truth that you feel. Behind the actors are projected statistics comparing the US to other countries around the world. The scene could have been a playful poke at “truthiness” if only the facts weren’t just un-cited lists under vague headings like “Crime.” It’s a nice way of saying, “we don’t need to provide much real context because you already agree with us, right?”
In another set piece toward the end, a distinguished WWII vet gives a heartfelt soliloquy about the loss of the American Dream. The only problem is the entire scene is constructed out of the same broad brushstrokes and easy appeals to emotion that Nightmerica was ostensibly attempting to undermine.
What’s disappointing is the work’s format could have been used to create a nuanced look at the assumptions and ideas that construct the American experience. However, the play falters by not approaching any alternative viewpoints in good faith. By not acknowledging the actual complexities that result from living in a multifaceted superpower with a varied historical record, Nighmerica comes off as no better than the hyper-patriotic emails it was apparently written in reaction to.
By the time the finale has Lady Liberty and Uncle Sam handing out tiny American flags to the audience, I’m just ready to wave goodbye.
Nightmerica performs thru July 29, 2012 at DC Arts Center, DC Arts Center, 2438 18th St NW, Washington, DC.
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