‘Iowa’ at Playwrights Horizons Has More Than Just Wacky Words

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Walking into the theatre for Jenny Schwartz and Todd Almond’s new musical play Iowa feels strange. The set, designed by Dane Laffrey, looks less like a set and more like a room in a well-lit large upper-class house that just happened to have a lot of seats set up in rows of vaguely stylish chairs. A string bass starts playing a charming melody, soon to be accompanied by a viola but the audience does not take it as a sign of the show starting; they continue to chatter away. This made the theatre seem even more like just a room, only this time there was a party going on in that well-lit upper-class house but all the guests were seated. In rows. Normal, except not quite.

When looking at its basic plot, Iowa is rather simple. Becca’s mom meets a guy online, they get engaged, and she decides much to her daughter’s resistance to uproot the family to Iowa, where he lives. Then there’s a burqa, a singing pony, a chorus of multiracial Nancy Drews, herpes, sister wives, and talk of going to Mars. Normal, but not quite.

While Iowa is essentially linear it takes large pieces of time between plot points to spend time doing, well, a lot of things. Monologues, songs, shouting matches, breaks from reality, narrations of online tasks — all ways to see what’s going on inside the characters’ heads. Something that is constant, however, is Schwartz’s strange and speedy way with words. They are words typically only strange to us; a character could be jumping from phrase to unrelated phrase while a horse is running around unexplained, and the delivery of the lines would sound just like a person talking about the sandwich they ordered yesterday — a true testament to the director and vibrant cast’s understanding of the text. However, sometimes it tries to deal with too much; it’s almost difficult to even recall everything that was jam-packed into the play’s mere 95 minutes, and it sometimes deviates too strongly from the Becca-centric throughline that has been set up.

Between all this talk of words, let’s not forget that Iowa is also a musical. The music in Iowa isn’t as strange as the words. In fact, a lot of it, although usually very lovely, sounds fairly typical or familiar. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; sometimes the language of the play is so odd or breakneck or random that it’s hard to understand it all. Music can sometimes distract from content but here, the music often helps open up the text: familiar and even heart-stirring chord progressions help forge a path to the often less-familiar dialogue. After all, everyone loves music. A line that may have been mentally skipped over is heard in a new way when sung to Todd Almond’s lovely score.

There’s a lot of humor in this play. Some of it is standard, some of it is a result of being so bewildered at what is happening onstage there’s no choice but to laugh. What else can one do when a man who is a cross between Fabio and a horse sings and points his hooves to the audience? Humor is what sets the scene for Iowa, but it’s not the only thing happening. Absurdity and laughs eventually gives way to a very tender display of emotions, and we come to realize that yes, these characters live in a strange world that operates differently than what we know, but they still feel the same ways. Jill Shackner’s Becca is a wonderfully alive and complex fourteen-year-old girl, and Karyn Quackenbush as her mother is truly a caricature at first but does eventually bloom into a living breathing woman warranting emotional involvement, especially near the end. It’s a surprise joy to find yourself suddenly caring deeply about the characters you merely found silly in the beginning.

Something significant about Iowa is the women. They’re everywhere. And they won’t stop talking. Schwartz’s play has a relatively small cast of 8 strong actors, and 7 of those performers are women, including youngster Kolette Tetlow. Many of these women embody vivacious characters typically only thought of in the abstract: the confused teenage daughter, her too-youthful mother, the wives of a polygamous man, the cheerleader, Nancy Drew. Not only is much of Iowa’s cast female, but many are women of color, something sadly not seen very commonly in American theatre.

Just how tangibly this play grants women of all walks of life a voice is shown in the magnificent Oratorio near the end once we finally arrive in the state of Iowa, sung by many sister wives. It’s a massive and layered piece of America-centric musical performance containing thought after thought, perspective after perspective, voice after voice, origin story after origin story. It is so overwhelming that it no longer even matters who is saying what, the important thing is that there are all these women onstage saying so much so honestly and beautifully and sometimes even confusingly, but we’ve come to expect a little confusion. A musical number containing such multitudes could grow tedious or rely on more shallow humor, but it is instead one of the most captivating and poignant parts of the entire show, despite featuring characters just introduced.

In conclusion, when describing this massive and lovely and strange work, it’s best to turn to the words of the old man walking out as I exited the theatre:

“That was the wackiest thing I’ve ever seen! There was nothing in life they didn’t touch!”

Iowa (stylized iOW@) runs until May 10 at Playwrights Horizons’ Peter Jay Sharp Theatre, 416 West 42nd Street. It is written by Jenny Schwartz with music by Todd Almond, and directed by Ken Russ Schmoll. Student tickets are available.

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