December 20, 2014

‘American Night’ an American nightmare

Richard Montoya in American Night: The Ballad of Juan José.—T.Charles Erickson

Richard Montoya in American Night: The Ballad of Juan José.—T.Charles EricksonRichard Montoya in American Night: The Ballad of Juan José.—T.Charles EricksonYale Rep at the University Theatre, New Haven: Only in America, where we enjoy freedom of speech, can such a trite, juvenile, and tedious play such as “American Night: The Ballad of Juan José” end up on the stage of one of the world’s most well known universities. 

Here is a play that delights in insulting everything about America under the guise of satire. It starts with the main character Juan José desperately wanting to become an American citizen in order to escape from drug and corruption-plagued Mexico. 

What he discovers in a dream prior to his citizenship test is that America’s history is seriously tainted. Integrating everything in a dream sequence from the pioneers giving smallpox to the Native Americans to the Ku Klux Klan as representations of America, the play goes beyond being critical of the land that affords the opportunity for this play to be presented publicly. 

It is sad that this is what America’s brightest are producing and applauding. The play is supposed to be the thing, but here it is nothing more than political propaganda. The actors, the set designer, and the costumers deserve credit for their work, but what a  waste of good talent. René Millan performs as a confused Juan José, which seems most appropriate. Kristen Robinson designed the set, Martin T. Schnellinger designed the costumes and Shana Cooper directed.

There are some questions that go unanswered in this ridiculous work, which is supposed to be but fails to be hilarious. Why does Juan José still take the citizenship test at the end of this play? Since he found it so harsh a place, why does Juan José opt for citizenship?

What is just as disturbing as the play itself is the playbill filled with explanations as to why this is a “political, timely and impassioned comedy.” James Bundy, artistic director of the Rep wrote: “We are fortunate, indeed, to live in a nation where political debates can play themselves out in our theatres, as well as in the Electorial College…” He got that right. Yes, Yale is fortunate to be a well-endowed American university whose students enjoy freedom of speech. 

No, this irreverent play does not reflect American political debate. It represents an ideology that leans so far to the left that it is offensive even to the left.  However, that is likely what the author intended. After all, according to the playbill, Montoya belongs to the trio called the “Culture Clash.” This group is described in the playbill as “irritating everyone democratically.” The finale distorts and debases the genuine patriotism expressed in Neil Diamond’s song “Coming to America.”  Richard Montoya, who penned this not-so-funny satire, changed the lyrics to be as negative as possible. 

One good note, the production did not receive a spontaneous standing ovation by the entire audience. There is hope for good theater and yes, for well written satire as well. Box office: 203-432-1234.

Joanne Greco Rochman is an active member in The American Theatre Critics Association, and covers art and culture in a blog for CBS National and CBS-CT.  She welcomes comments. Contact: jgrochman@gmail.com