Iow@ — which I’d like to retitle “Why? Oh! Ugh” is the latest new work to hit the stage at Playwrights Horizons. The world premiere absurdist musical by Jenny Schwarz (book and lyrics) and Todd Almond (music and lyrics) loosely follows the journey of Becca (Jill Shackner) as her mom Sandy (Karyn Quackenbush) abruptly decides to pick up the family and move across country to Iowa (or is it Ohio?) to pursue an Internet obsession. Becca says goodbye to life as she knows it, which includes her bulimic best friend and a talking pony, to go on a bizarre journey to the polygamist promised land. (Isn’t that Utah, by the way?)
Iow@ at its onset is obscurely promising, as Becca learns of her future travels from her A.D.H.D. mother, who rants for a good ten minutes in a steam-of-consciousness manner about everything from menstruation to body image and beyond. As Becca’s mom Sandy, Quackenbush dives in with a quirky, Julie Hagerty-like sensibility. High-pitched and wide-eyed, she—along with the rest of the cast—tackles the absurdist script at high voltage. Unfortunately, there’s not a light bulb in the socket of this play. Regardless of their emotional investments, it simply doesn’t light up.
Schwarz and Almond’s script, in a grand sense, touches upon powerful themes including the roles of women in society, parenthood, technology, sexual orientation and racial profiling. The diverse cast each has his or her moment to shine, including Annie McNamara as a cheerleader with a biting tongue (“I’m not a sex object, OK? I’m just a girl with random talents.”) and April Matthis as Black Nancy Drew (“I’ll always be eighteen. But now I’m multi-culti. And I’m hot.”) These zingers are peppered throughout the script and delivered with plenty of punch, particularly set against the creative vision of costume designer Arnulfo Maldonado, who transforms the cast of eight into a schizophrenic ensemble of many.
Where Iow@ loses steam is in its lack of musicality. Almond’s score is dismally droll, dragging the show’s pace through the mud and rarely offering the actors a heightened sense of emotion or deliverability to further the story. They give it a champion effort, though, and under Ken Rus Schmoll’s direction are certainly all on the same page. Unfortunately none of these efforts can salvage a score in search of a melody nor a plot truncated by its own flailing appendages.
416 West 42nd Street
Through May 10.