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Theatre in Review: This American Wife

Patrick Foley, Michael Breslin. Photo: Nina Goodheart

Given its ubiquity in the pop culture world, it was inevitable that somebody would take on Bravo's The Real Housewives of...franchise. Having once tried (and failed) to silence the Countess LuAnn de Lesseps at a Broadway show, I know that these ladies can be devilishly hard to ignore. Now comes This American Wife, an all-male, experimental-theatre take that combines a superfan's voluminous knowledge of Housewives arcana with studiously applied queer theory to gingerly probe the shallows of this faux-glitter entertainment empire.

With its alarmingly lacquered heroines taking part in manufactured catfights while downing (and, occasionally, throwing) gallons of chardonnay, The Real Housewives is almost overripe for satire; indeed, spoofing it seems like the ultimate fish-in-a-barrel expedition. (In her heyday, Carol Burnett would have dismantled the whole thing in ten minutes flat.) The piece positions its three cast members -- Michael Breslin, Patrick Foley, and Jakeem Dante Powell -- as young gay/queer Housewives obsessives brought together in an appropriately overdecorated manse in Lake Success for a round of sniping, shade-throwing, and dubious confessions. Breslin admits to driving through New Jersey in search of the hair salon of Teresa Giudice, the New Jersey princess turned jailbird. Foley cops to stalking Kelly Killoren Bensimon (of the New York series) on the street. Powell notes, simply, "These women have really been there for me."

Yes, we are among the hard-core crowd, which might be one reason why This American Wife unfolds in an atmosphere both insular and strangely lacking in laughter. The first part features the men wandering from room to room, quoting random lines from the shows. (Among them is this jaw-dropper, courtesy of Orange Country's Vicki Gunvalson: "So I'm being nailed to the cross like Jesus was. And he did nothing wrong. He's Jesus Christ, and he did nothing wrong and he was nailed to the cross.") If you're familiar with the territory, this greatest-hits collection may be hilarious. If not, you're out of luck. Breslin and Foley, the authors of the semi-improvised script, assume that everyone is equally hung up on these clueless, overprivileged dollfaces. That's a big if.

Later on, the focus shifts to interviews in which the men, now or more or less playing themselves, reveal intimate details, including mild body dysmorphia, fears of intimacy, and tastes in porn. They are only marginally more compelling than their cable TV counterparts; when two of them are caught retailing the same account of being raped, cueing accusations of lying and betrayal, the ensuing confrontations feel forced. Other bits are perplexing. In the live performance I screened, Foley offered a bitter diatribe at New York Times theatre critic Jesse Green (sophomorically code-named "Jessica Red") while waving a copy of Green's memoir The Velveteen Father. This is odd because the show's mixed-to-negative notice in the Times was by Maya Phillips. (She noted the Green attack in her review.) As score-settling missions go, it is mysterious, a poisoned dart that falls wide of the mark.

All of this is in service of an obvious idea, here implied again and again: The "reality" in reality TV is nothing but a construct, made -- in the case of the Housewives -- out of shoddy materials and rooted in tired and/or pernicious ideas about femininity and race. (Interestingly, nothing is made of the fact that the franchise is the brainchild of Andy Cohen, a gay man, and a strenuously self-promoting icon of fabulousness.) In interview, the authors cite as influences the film directors Douglas Sirk and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, artists who elevated soap opera troupes to the level of art; one can see the connection, but Breslin and Foley don't yet have the control or wit of those master subverters.

Under the direction of Rory Pelsue, who allows too many lengthy and shaky tracking camera shots, Powell most effectively walks the line between camp dramatics and apparent authenticity. There is something particularly startling about him, channeling Kenya Moore (one of the all-Black Atlanta series), announcing that he is "Gone with the Wind fabulous!" At moments like this, one suddenly sees what the piece is getting at. Amusingly, as I was writing this, a Variety headline appeared in my inbox, saying that Bravo had edited an episode of the Atlanta series to downplay Moore's Halloween costume, which prominently featured a Native American headdress. So much for intersectionality.

Nevertheless, none of the actors possesses the larger-than-life personality -- the sheer taste for self-display without self-knowledge -- that makes the Housewives catnip for fans of unintentional camp. This American Wife is, in the last analysis, a 90-minute in-joke, and its illusion-versus-reality games are, ultimately, not terribly engaging. If you're going to erect a hall of mirrors, it should be more glittering than this. You can access This American Wife at www.thisamericanwife.live/. -- David Barbour


(28 May 2021)

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