By James Bartholomew
“Americans are more divided than ever” has become a common refrain about political discourse in the U.S. Regardless of what news outlet broadcasts it or what politician preaches it, there is some gap, rift, or divide in the country that needs bridging. But if that herculean feat is ever to be accomplished, it will be plays like “American Tranquility” that get the ball rolling.
Written and performed by Daniel Damiano, “American Tranquility” is a window into the lives of four very different Americans, each with his own ideas about tranquility and prosperity. There is an aging Alabama retiree, an immigrant subway performer, a right-wing talk show host and a modern-day transcendentalist living off the grid. And while the characters are often humorous, the perspectives they represent are all too real.
The show is structured in four parts, one for each of Mr. Damiano’s characters. Stanley, an elderly man with a cane and a cough, is more than eager to explain the problems with “the young” and their fear of becoming “the old.” Achmed, a cheerful subway poet/percussionist, recites poetry asking to be accepted by his new countrymen, while conservative radio host Morgan Ridge launches into a tirade about the dangers of immigrants and social services. Mr. Damiano ends the show with Ronnie, perhaps his strongest character, who, after becoming disillusioned with his life in New York, decides to live alone in the woods where he builds cabins, forages for food and shoots the breeze with wolves.
Drawing on the stock characters of 21st-century Americana, the characters of “American Tranquility” are united in their conviction that their views on society are right. Stanley rallies against ageism while Achmed does the same against racism. Morgan calls for the removal of liberals from society while Ronnie, fed up with the futility of modern life, is happy to comply. Mr. Damiano has taken careful measures to craft characters that overlap while also being foils, a welcome nuance that adds depth to all four.
Supporting these lofty themes is a truly impressive performance on the part of Mr. Damiano. Armed with a writer’s ear for capturing dialogue and an actor’s flair for delivery, he makes his characters impressively real and uniquely vibrant. Stanley, Achmed, Morgan and Ronnie are each so well defined and engaging on their own, it’s easy to get lost in the performance. “American Tranquility” feels like eavesdropping on a conversation on a bus or train – it doesn’t take much to imagine running across either one of these men on a daily commute, and listening to them explain how they think the world works.
While Mr. Damiano is generally able to subvert the modern archetypes he’s leaning on, Achmed and Morgan feel a little predictable in their viewpoints. Achmed’s struggle to find acceptance in his new country is vital to the piece overall, but slightly conventional in isolation. Conversely, Morgan’s increasingly detached rantings make for a hilarious parody of conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones, but his jarringly extreme views make him devoid of sympathy.
Don’t let that deceive you into believing that “American Tranquility” is anything but an exceptional piece of theatre. It’s hard to keep an audience on the edge of their seats in a show that’s virtually plotless, but Mr. Damiano’s performances generate enough energy to keep anyone captivated. “American Tranquility” presents a vertical slice of American society that’s just as messy and complex as the real thing. It’s also a witty and absurd breakdown of both sides of the country’s “great divide.” Whether you have a taste for social commentary or just love good old-fashioned character work, don’t miss “American Tranquility.”
JAMES BARTHOLOMEW is a writer and musician living in New York City. He is an administrator of the Fordham University Theatre Program and an avid lover of the arts.