Jenny Schwartz and Todd Almond team up for an absurdist musical play at Playwrights Horizons.

The cast of Jenny Schwartz and Todd Almond's Iowa, directed by Ken Rus Schmoll, at Playwrights Horizons' Peter Jay Sharp Theatre.
The cast of Jenny Schwartz and Todd Almond's Iowa, directed by Ken Rus Schmoll, at Playwrights Horizons' Peter Jay Sharp Theatre.
(© Joan Marcus)

What do a polygamist commune, a randy pony, and a posse of Nancy Drews have in common? They all came barreling out of playwright Jenny Schwartz's untethered imagination in Iowa, the latest of her logic-defying plays, now running at Playwrights Horizons' Peter Jay Sharp Theatre. Composer Todd Almond lends an equally zany score to the musical play (not a musical, to be clear), meeting Schwartz in the freewheeling world of which she has grown fond. As audiences experienced in Schwartz's challenging play Somewhere Fun at the Vineyard Theatre in 2013, her untamed creativity is Iowa's most admirable quality — but just like the aforementioned pony, the piece is in dire need of a strong set of reins.

Despite the title, Iowa has relatively little to do with the state, or its serene planes pictured on the cover of the program. As New Yorkers like to imagine the exotic unknown of the Midwest, it's more a faraway land of wonder for 14-year-old Becca (Jill Shackner) and her manic mother, Sandy (Karyn Quackenbush), who accepts a marriage proposal from her Iowan Facebook lover Roger. The remainder of the play is the buildup to the big move, with erratic contributions from the plethora of tangential characters: a ditsy cheerleader (played by the abundantly expressive Annie McNamara), Becca's bulimic friend, Amanda (Carolina Sanchez, perfectly blending adoration and shell shock as she swoons over the cheerleaders), an angry African-American Nancy Drew (Becca's childhood idol, given new confrontational life by April Matthis), and a talking horse whose inexplicable solo number opens with the lyric "Ponies don't like to have girlfriends." The song is pulled off admirably by the wry Lee Sellars, who shamelessly dons hooves and a tail, thanks to playful costume designer Arnulfo Maldonado.

This motley crew of characters and the game of free word association that Schwartz seems to play in constructing their dialogue make for some admittedly comic moments. But even the laughs take an uncomfortably shapeless form as we wander through Schwartz and Almond's patchy world of absurdity — directed with an equal amount of distancing silliness by Ken Rus Schmoll. The style itself is destined to be off-putting for those without an affinity for its particular theatrical sensibilities. Yet, even those with a yen for the ridiculous will find the piece difficult to grasp. At its core, Schwartz and Almond have a touching coming-of-age story that gets lost in a whirlwind of nonsense. The nonsense is not without thought or purpose, but there is nothing in Iowa that draws a clear (or even hazy) line from the inanity to the sincere.

The young Kolette Tetlow, with a sweet voice and unassuming air, brings the piece some of its only poignant moments as Young Becca, who opens the play dreaming of one day traveling to Mars. Shackner then takes over as misunderstood teenage Becca, whose mother rarely even remembers her name (Burqa and Bookah are two of her mispronunciations). Authenticity registers in Shackner's beautifully sung moments, but her dialogue is overstuffed camp. The audience can have a good chuckle at her unconventional crush on her balding math teacher (another one of Sellars' four characters), but it ultimately distracts from what should be a buildup to her life-altering Iowa move — the main event that all too often flees from our minds completely amid all the onstage ruckus.

When we finally arrive at this Midwestern promised land (represented by set designer Dane Laffrey's simple backdrop picturing an open field), we have hardly invested in either Becca or her mother, whose breathless rants, delivered at a piercing frequency by Quackenbush, quickly turn from comic to grating as they endlessly drone on. The song "I Am a Hawk" (sung by Tetlow), closes the show on an abruptly earnest note. It's one of Almond's most pleasant numbers, but one that in no way resembles the past hour and a half. This identity crisis pervades the entire production, locking away much of its potential impact, both comic and intellectual. Without a focused voice, there can be no confidence in the journey at hand — even as Schwartz and Almond fervently assert that we really ought to give Iowa a try.

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