American River takes place in and outside a duplex near Nowhere, USA where twentysomething Liz, played by Laura Ramadei, sells a little meth. There's tons of road noise but at least the bar she works for - used to work for - pays the bills. Liz aspires to be much more than a mere bartender. She'll be a celebrity bartender, a mixologist, certified and everything, and open a lounge...someday. She's not a big time dealer or anything. That's what she tells Connor, her long term on and off boyfriend played by Robbie Collier Sublett, when he comes to take her back home. Connor hasn't seen Liz in at least nine months and a lot has changed. Clean now, out of rehab, working and taking classes at American River College, he plans to become a guidance counselor. He'll help 'kids like us' he tells Liz.
But kids like Liz and Connor, and the Pizza Hat delivery boy, Booger, played by Brendan Speith, with whom they soon join forces, unwittingly perpetuate a vicious cycle of small town dysfunction. Really they’re doing their best, considering the examples set for them. On a million cable channels across our fruited plain, rides get pimped and cribs get tricked out, heiresses get famous and drug-addled starlets get off. Reality television consistently rewards liars and cheats, and big time corporate crooks live the highest of lives. No wonder kids like Liz and Connor become small time criminals. When the best you can do is ten bucks an hour delivering for the Pizza Hat, or stocking shelves at Liquor Locker, there's never much to call your own. And what you do have is always in danger of being razed:
I should tear down that piece of shit mall and build my lounge right on top of it. And I could build a bar - you know, one of those circular bars and right in the middle of it, I'd plant a tree - a big, fucking tree, and that tree would reach up through the roof, so that everyone could see it, and I'd call it the 'Fuck-You Tree' and ten percent of all the profits of my lounge would go to rebuilding people's special places. That's what I'd do. Fuck that fucking town.
Up against Liz’s aspiration to chuck it all and move to Ibiza, and her meth-inspired notion that they should take Booger along with them, Connor’s plans to rescue and marry Liz pretty quickly go awry. At the top of Act Three, the pair are broke, betrayed, way too high and completely drenched by a sudden storm. Liz attempts to resuscitate a rain damaged inflatable palm tree on her cluttered patio, but it's no use. That dream is DOA. By the time Liz's, er, boss Johnny shows up, played by John Patrick Doherty, whatever shit they still have together is going to hit the proverbial turbine. The guy's a shark and Connor's bleeding.
So Lix has to make a choice. No question she loves golden-hearted Connor but, as is pointed out at least twice, ‘guidance counselors make like no money'. With Johnny, she'll get to Vegas at least. It's not Ibiza but it's something, which is better than nothing. How bad can it be? (I keep thinking about the use of Rhianna's S&M in this production - Liz is neither written as or played like a victim, but her choices are similarly baffling – except for the abundance of drugs and the lack of opportunity that define Liz's life.)
A lot of kids are different. It's like they're trying to take a bunch of circles and shove 'em into square pegs.
You think I'm a fucked up circle?
Take Tommy, for example
I'm not like Tommy
He was a friend of yours?
Johnny gives Connor another bump.
Tommy was definitely a fucked up circle.
I mean, he never said a word.
Yeah, cuz he was stoned.
But why was he stoned?
Cuz he was a big fucking stoner.
But the reason he got stoned was because he was fucking bored and- his dad- I mean, it's not like anybody was paying attention- you know, he coulda fucking jumped off a cliff for all they cared-
-- or shoot himself in the head-
Exactly. Like, what does it take for people to, at all, pay attention, or like, I mean it's not like it was, you know, just tommy, but like, our whole fucking class was, in a way, I mean, totally lost, right? So like was anyone listening, or asking, I mean, what the fuck!, as if they really fucking cared cuz if they had, I mean, they would have seen that we were fucking bored, and the tests, the never-ending fucking bubbles of multiple choice bullshit, and like nothing, nothing to inspire us so why not, like take a bunch of fucking oxy and shoot ourselves in the head.
It's seems to me that the problem is less the American river on which young people drift these days than the size and stability of the raft they’re given on which to ride it. Earlier this year, I had occasion to be in the small East Texas town where I was born. My sister and I were struck by the zombie-like countenance of all the young people we saw there. Pumped full of fast food and false hope, they’re not equipped for, and seem oblivious to, the rapids ahead. In American River, delivery boy Booger sports stars and stripes, and count ‘em two American flag watches. Old glory, new tricks: when left holding the bag, he’ll run with as much as he can carry.
Lesser America does this stuff right. Anyone who saw their production of Squealer last year will know what I mean. And the team they have on this one really know their vinyl siding and Daisy Dukes. Set designer Daniel Zimmerman solves all the problems of TNC's cabaret theatre by reorienting the playing space along the room's south wall rather than in its usual lengthwise depths. David Corsello's sound design is done with such great precision, it gives full voice to a fifth character in the play. Marie Yokoyama's lighting strategically turns the same small space from exterior to interior and back again simply and effectively. Jessica Pabst's costuming is spot-on trash-perational.
Director Stephen Brackett has turned a play about people who never do much of anything into a whirlwind of physicality. Under his direction, the play crackles with chem-energy and animal instinct. It’s sexy and scary and funny, constanly shifting, building swiftly and steadily to an inevitable swan-dive.
And the cast of American River is full throttle all in. One of the most impacting moments of the play for me was watching Robbie Collier Sublett as Connor decide whether to snort a line of meth, and riding a sudden rollercoaster of regret and euphoria immediately after. His performance is full of that kind of sudden complexity. Brendan Speith plays the pixieish pizza boy Booger like a buoyant puppy, bringing tawdry sparkle to the drab duplex in a performance that is very funny but too richly layered to be called mere comic relief. John Patrick Doherty exudes an easy menace as big slimy fish in a small dry pond Johnny. He’s dangerous without having to prove it to us.
And it's no secret how I feel about Laura Ramadei. I will try not to embarrass her, or myself, by gushing too much about her work as Liz. Ramadei has a way of conveying big ideas with small moves. She does messy, desperate characters like this one with grace and precision. The effect is a surprising, compelling performance that is so much more that the sum of its well-crafted parts. I hope she’ll do more of Micheline Auger’s plays because she's perfect for just the kind of strong, sexy, unapologetically aimless female character who knows exactly what she wants (if not necessarily how to get it) that Auger writes so well.
I love that urgency in Micheline Auger's stuff, and I am so excited to see play that I have so long loved finally and thrillingly brought to life. Her characters have such an intense need to speak, if not always the vocabulary to do so very eloquently. They work so hard to stay cool, they never quite lose it, but you can sense their roiling just under the surface. Love or hate them, the populace of Auger's plays are fighters. (If you ever get a chance to, check out her her smart, funny indictment of sex scandals and raunch culture The Feminism Of A Soft Merlot. Thanks to the perennial shenanigans of our elected leaders, it will likely remain timely for many years to come.)
American River had a brush with production a couple years ago through another NYC-based organization. I was surprised when it didn’t work out, because the play is so great. But these things generally happen for a good reason. In this case, the reason was Lesser America. This is a perfect match of company, play, and casting. It’s so hard to make these things happen. Seeing this show reminds me that, with a little faith and a lot of patience, all the right bits eventually fall into place.
Go see it. Tix and info HERE.