Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Off-Broadway Theater Review: Iowa

The Resulting Chaos That Gallops in When Dreams Are Allowed to Die
By Lauren Yarger
Iowa. It's the pinnacle of the American Dream. Somewhere out there in the heart of the country is a land of good, honest people with values who work hard to keep those plains fruited. The fulfilment of dreams waits there. Or does it?

Playwrights Horizon's world premiere of the play Iowa by Jenny Schwartz with music by Todd Almond makes us wonder.

The play is a zany look at life in America today with our obsession with social media, pills for every possible medical condition and the need to fit in and be loved, among other things, given a humorous treatment by a talented ensemble cast directed by Ken Russ Schmoll. Maybe I am reading too much into the bizarre, instant-message dialogue, quirky lyrics and zany fantasy sequences -- many of which have you asking, "what the heck?" -- but I found some commentaries on trends in American culture that I liked very much.

Sandy, a self-absorbed, irresponsible  (Karyn Quackenbush) mom has found her soul mate. You'll never guess where. On Facebook!

"OMG and FYI, OCD. Show them the ring," she tells her new fiance as she updates her status to "engaged."

Daughter, Becca (fresh, talented Jill Shackner) is not LMAO at the news. Who is this guy who expects her mother to uproot them and move them away from everything to the middle of nowhere Iowa? What about the things she will have to leave behind, like her one and only friend, Amanda (Carolina Sanchez) and her teacher, Mr. Hill (a comedic Lee Sellars) with whom she's secretly been in love?

Sandy, who can't remember her daughter's name or age, but who always remembers to put her down, isn't concerned, however.

"Do you consider yourself femme or butch, Or in between" she asks Becca. "Not to label. Labeling is disabling. A child is not a soup can, and don.t let anybody tell you different."

Well, if that's not enough to give a teenager angst, Sandy casually drops the information that Becca apparently was adopted. She wants to ditch the Iowa trip and go live with her dad (also played by Sellars) in London, but he is preoccupied with Liz (Cindy Cheung), the new woman in his life, who is expecting a baby,

"I always wanted to be a dad," he tells his daughter.

Meanwhile, if Becca leaves, shy Amanda might be able to develop a friendship with someone else -- maybe even a cheerleader (an uproariously funny Annie McNamara). It turns out cheerleaders are people and have feelings and dreams just like regular people, Amanda learns.

"I'm just a girl with random talents," the Cheerleader confesses. "I want to be serious. Seriously. I want to be taken seriously. I'm serious."

OK, I just laughed out loud when typing that dialogue. The humor is there throughout Schwartz's script. The message, presented in absurd drama form, might be a bit harder to discern, however.

The action, besides including 14 musical numbers played by a three-person band on the stage, features a group of four ethnically different and politically correct Nancy Drews (led by April Matthis) to help Becca solve some of the mysteries of life, Sellars as the pony everyone wanted as a kid galloping across the stage and a bickering Mormon sisterhood, among other things.

Countering the zany is a touching scene where Becca recalls her peaceful childhood, where as a little girl (played by Kolette Tetlow), she reads Nancy Drew mysteries by flashlight in her beloved tree house, where her loving father visits with her after a day at work. She was content. Will life ever offer such simple happiness again?

The crazy, self absorbed existence of the real world obliterates what goals and dreams we might have had -- that we still have if we let ourselves be honest. Iowa isn't everything they thought it would be, but Sandy and Becca compromise, allowing their need to fit in and have  a piece of "normal" trump holding out for what they really want.

The play is about Becca trying to find herself, trying to discover how to become a woman in America, but being thwarted by having parents too caught up in themselves and their own needs to help her along the way.

"Do everything for me," a drunk Sandy tells her 14-year-old as she places her in the driver's seat of their car.

A sad, but insightful commentary amusingly staged -- even if we don't always know what the heck is going on.  At least set designer Dane Laffrey's lovely backdrop of the Iowa landscape appeared to remind me that for me, Iowa remains a place of wholesome goodness.

Iowa plays through May 10 at the Peter Jay Sharp Theatre at Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd St. NYC. Performances are Tuesday through Friday at , 7:30 pm; Saturday at 2 and 7:30 pm and Sunday at 2 and 7 pm. Tickets: $60 - $75;;212-279-4200

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Our reviews are professional reviews written without a religious bias. At the end of them, you can find a listing of language, content or theological issues that Christians might want to know about when deciding which shows to see.

** Mature indicates that the show has posted an advisory because of content. Usually this means I would recommend no one under the age of 16 attend.

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

My Bio

Lauren Yarger has written, directed and produced numerous shows and special events for both secular and Christian audiences. She co-wrote a Christian musical version of “A Christmas Carol” which played to sold-out audiences of over 3,000 in Vermont and was awarded the 2000 Vermont Bessie (theater and film awards) for “People’s Choice for Theatre.” She also has written two other dinner theaters, sketches for church services and devotions for Christian artists.

Yarger trained for three years in the Broadway League’s Producer Development Program, completed the Commercial Theater Institute's Producing Three-Day Training and produced a one-woman musical about Mary Magdalene that toured nationally and closed with an off-Broadway run.

She was a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT. She writes reviews of Broadway and off-Broadway theater (the only ones you can find in the US with an added Christian perspective) at

She is editor of The Connecticut Arts Connection (, an award-winning website featuring theater and arts news for the state. She is a contributing editor for and is a theater reviewer for the Manchester Journal-Inquirer. She previously served as Connecticut theater editor for and as Connecticut and New York reviewer for American Theater Web.

Yarger is a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly and freelances for other sites. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

She is a freelance writer and playwright and member of The Drama Desk, The Outer Critics Circle, The American Theater Critics Association and The League of Professional Theatre Women. She served as a judge for the SDX Awards presented by the Society of Professional Journalists. She also is a member of the Connecticut Critics Circle and the CT Press Club.

A former newspaper editor and graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Yarger also worked in arts management for the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and served for nine years as the Executive Director of Masterwork Productions, Inc. She lives with her husband in West Granby, CT. They have two adult children.


All material is copyright 2008- 2017 by Lauren Yarger. Reviews and articles may not be reprinted without permission. Contact


Key to Content Notes:

God's name taken in vain -- means God or Jesus is used in dialogue without speaking directly to or about them.

Language -- means some curse words are used. "Minor" usually means the words are not too strong or that it only occurs once or twice throughout the show.

Strong Language -- means some of the more heavy duty curse words are used.

Nudity -- means a man or woman's backside, a man's lower front or a woman's front are revealed.

Scantily clad -- means actors' private areas are technically covered, but I can see a lot of them.

Sexual Language -- means the dialogue contains sexually explicit language but there's no action.

Sexual Activity -- means a man and woman are performing sexual acts.

Adultery -- Means a married man or woman is involved sexually with someone besides their spouse. If this is depicted with sexual acts on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Sex Outside of Marriage -- means a man and woman are involved sexually without being married. If this is depicted sexually on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Homosexuality -- means this is in the show, but not physically depicted.

Homosexual activity -- means two persons of the same sex are embracing/kissing. If they do more than that, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Cross Dresser -- Means someone is dressing as the opposite sex. If they do more than that on stage the listing would include the corresponding "sexual activity" and/or "homosexual activity" as well.

Cross Gender -- A man is playing a female part or a woman is playing a man's part.

Suggestive Dancing -- means dancing contains sexually suggestive moves.

Derogatory (category added Fall 2012) Language or circumstances where women are referred to or treated in a negative and demeaning manner.

Other content matters such as torture, suicide or rape will be noted, with details revealed only as necessary in the review itself.

The term "throughout" added to any of the above means it happens many times throughout the show.

Reviewing Policy

I receive free seats to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows made available to all voting members of the Outer Critics Circle and The Drama Desk, the two professional critics organizations with journalists covering NY theater. Journalistically, I provide an unbiased review and am under no obligation to make positive statements. Sometimes shows do not make tickets available to reviewers. If these are shows my readers want to know about (I review all Broadway shows and pertinent Off-Broadway shows), I will purchase a ticket. If a personal friend is involved in a production, I'll let you know, but it won't influence a review. If I feel there is a conflict, I won't review their portion of the production.

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