American Nightmare : Review – Thursday 12th September 2019, The Other Room @ Porter’s Cardiff

Despite strong production elements, excellent casting and great direction the lack of originality in the concept means that American Nightmare fails to excite in the way it should.

★★★☆☆

The Other Room is back. With their first fully self produced season since Spring 2018, TOR presents “The Violence Series”, a trio of newly commissioned plays. First up is American Nightmare, written by TOR favourite and de-facto writer in residence (see Constellation Street and The Awkward Years) Matthew Bulgo.

Evidently a riff on the concept of the “American Dream” whereby equality and upwards mobility are available to all in the pursuit of aspirations and goals, American Nightmare takes that idea apart with a sledgehammer. In an unspecified future, the USA has become even more bitterly divided between the rich and poor. The concept of social mobility has crumbled, and the gap between the haves and have not’s has become a chasm larger than the Grand Canyon.

The play focuses on two sets of characters at diametrically opposed ends of the social spectrum. Far above the chaos and riots going on below, at the top of a skyscraper in New York City we meet Greg (Chris Gordon) , a British businessman and the woman he has been invited by, Clara (Ruth Ollman). Summoned to the States, Greg is wined and dined with the prospect of a business opportunity that could make him rich beyond his understanding. Meanwhile in a vast testing facility Elwood (Gwydion Rhys) and Daria (Lowri Izzard), desperate to leave behind a life of destitution on the streets, have signed up to a mysterious program overseen by an omnipotent projected character called “The Program” (Richard Harrington).

Throughout the play we are fed small nuggets of information about the state of the country. Wars and famine have led to the decay of America, a situation which Clara and her company have decided is unsustainable. Yet their proposed solution will push Greg to the limits of his own moral compass. Meanwhile as the regime below continues, the desperation of Elwood and Daria is clear as they push themselves to breaking point time and time again. Quite what the prize at the end of the tunnel is neither are quite sure, but what they are sure of is that is must be preferable to life outside. Similarly Greg is seduced by Clara’s patter, her charm and wit and finally by the breathtaking amount of money offered for something which even Clara can’t fully divulge the true nature of.

Directed by Sara Lloyd, the chemistry and dynamics between the two pairings is excellent. notwithstanding occasionally ropy American accents from some, the characters feel believable, and the interplay manages to pick out the humor and horror of Bulgo’s writing. From time to time the scenes gallop along a little too fast, which doesn’t allow enough time for pregnant pauses or the tension of subtext, yet generally this means that the production moves at a pace and doesn’t become stuck in a rut. The use of Video designer Simon Clode’s razor sharp projections as an overlay between scenes is excellent, its imagery hypnotic and evocative at subtly providing wider context between scenes. Once again the set design by Delyth Evans, shoved into the tiny theatre space, is excellent. Having Greg and Clara sitting literally above the others behind a movable wall is a clever way of using the space both physically and metaphorically. Yet despite all these separate elements, something in the piece is amiss.

The concept itself of a post/near apocalyptic world at the brink of societal collapse, with the rich becoming untouchable and the poor scrabbling around in the dust beneath is not a new concept or idea. It has been portrayed in every conceivable form from books and films, television and theatre countless times. The fact that American Nightmare borrows so heavily from these types of well worn tropes is sadly it’s biggest flaw. While the writing is strong and the chemistry between the pairings undeniable, the story goes down a well trodden path and its lack of originality means that when the reveal happens, it feels obvious and inevitable rather than shocking or surprising.

In taking his concept to its logical conclusion, Bulgo merely follows conventions rather than subverting them in any meaningful way. That is not to say the concept does not work – it is a sound one, and many parts of it feel like they have been thought through from a very 21st century angle. Despite strong production elements, excellent casting and great direction the lack of originality in the concept means that American Nightmare fails to excite in the way it should.

American Nightmare is running at The Other Room until Saturday the 29th September 2019. For more information and tickets click here

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