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Regional Interests

‘This American Wife’ is a Dazzling Remix of ‘Real Housewives’

An opulent mansion glows invitingly in the twilight, stuffed with rose-gold questionable taste and more cutesy accent pillows than a Pier 1 Imports. Inside, a trio of actors—Michael Breslin, Patrick Foley, and Jakeem Dante Powell—saunter through gleaming corridors dressed in soft pinks and whites. Eyeshadow sparkling, foreheads moist, they scream invectives and point accusatory fingers. They croon at each other and tease the cameras, flicking their wrists and rolling their eyes. Their lines, lifted verbatim from multiple seasons of the Real Housewives franchise, shoot from their heavily glossed lips like bullets. High drama is in the air, and these performers are clearly relishing the opportunity to stir it up.

Patrick Foley and Michael Breslin dine on influencer-perfect lemons in ‘This American Wife.’ (Nina Goodheart)

This followup to Brooklyn-based Fake Friends’ “viral” internet hit of 2020, Circle Jerk, This American Wife was actually first performed live in 2018. But after the critical and commercial success of Circle Jerk, which sold over 5,000 tickets, and the ongoing uncertainty of when or how live performances would return to physical venues, it made sense to keep making theater for their newly-minted digital audience. After a detour into the land of crowd-sourced musical material (writing the libretto for Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical­, which raised over two million dollars for the Actor’s Fund), Fake Friends opened This American Wife this past weekend as a partially scripted, partially improvised, meta-reality show extravaganza.

As a company whose work had already included multi-media elements and sensibilities, Fake Friends has had a pandemic advantage over other theater companies struggling to reimagine their practice for virtual platforms. And a creative and personal association with playwright and producer Jeremy O. Harris—whose recent two-year contract with HBO included a “discretionary fund” earmarked for theater production—gave them a good chunk of the money necessary to fully translate their meticulously dramaturged, tech-savvy work to a multi-camera, livestream environment. In both Circle Jerk and This American Wife there are moments where the cameras pull back to reveal the “backstage”—rooms full of equipment and producers, costumes and green screens. A revelatory peek behind the curtain, as it were, of the Fake Friends internet theater production machine.

Michael Breslin and Jakeem Dante Powell flip the script and turn the cameras in ‘This American Wife.’

Can anyone deny the grip that reality television has on popular discourse? Surely the act of electing a former reality television star to the presidency is indicative of the power of this frequently messy, highly-produced “reality” that celebrates our most incorrigible and monstrous impulses. I can’t talk authoritatively about the Real Housewives—but the lines repeated by Breslin, Foley, and Powell could easily have been gleaned from any of dozens of other reality shows. They could be bachelorettes, survivors, drag queens, or apprentices, cattily tearing into each other’s morals and aesthetics, competing to confess the most harrowing personal narrative, flouncing from room to room like television royalty, and inspiring equal measures of envy and repulsion from their captive audiences, who seemingly can’t get enough. The cast covers quite a bit of terrain—from Jersey to Beverly Hills—with Powell playing the Black housewives (frequently squabbling with himself as most of the Atlanta cast)—and Breslin and Foley playing pretty much everyone else.

Jakeem Dante Powell channels his inner housewife in ‘This American Wife.’ (Nina Goodheart)

After cycling through a few juicy rounds of “name that catchphrase,” the trio hoist cameras of their own onto their shoulders and begin “producing” each other. Patrick trains his camera on Michael, encouraging him to talk about his childhood and his favorite Housewives mansions. “This is how we get to know each other,” he cajoles, pressing Michael for juicier details. Michael then turns the camera onto Jakeem, and Jakeem onto Patrick, each scene becoming progressively more uncomfortably intimate and emotionally loaded. It should be noted that this section of the play is also entirely improvised (an element I confirmed for myself by watching the production on two separate nights). While each performer hits certain pre-arranged moments and storylines, the crackling excitement of a well-executed improvisation emanates from the screen.

It’s this energy that infuses This American Wife with that elusive element best described as “theatricality.” And it doesn’t take long to draw the same connection to the reality television experience in general. Is that why we love it so much? Because it transcends its medium, embracing the ways that a constructed reality can feel so immediate and so deeply relevant?

Michael Breslin having an epic dance moment in ‘This American Wife.’ (Nina Goodheart)

But lest you think this is all the surprise that This American Wife has in store for you, it bears noting that this is just the first Act. Ahead lie a beachfront property set in a dishwasher, an in-depth production history that unfolds like the most captivating crime caper, glorious transformations, cruel betrayals, a beautifully mythic dance number, a flagrant appropriation of social justice vocabulary, and Powell’s stunning revelation that he’s been bullied the entire production, waving a gold-striped binder full of “receipts.” It’s rigorous and ridiculous, combined in a dizzying spiral of self-possession and screen obsession, funneling the grossest excesses of our collective id into a 90-minute crash course on reality vs. realism. It’s also completely essential viewing for anyone looking to discover the theatrical potential of the online experience. You might be surprised to learn it’s been there all along.

‘This American Wife’ runs live through May 29; on demand May 30–June 6. Details here.

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