I am meat for sacrifice
But I won’t go unavenged.
—the Anne Carson Tweetbot
To predict your cocktail of feelings during the online play This American Wife, it’s first necessary to work out where you stand on the docusoap franchise The Real Housewives. If you hate or even simply ignore those Bravo TV offerings, then the show will operate as a horror film, a grinning immersion in what feels like our culture’s pink slime. But for die-hard aficionados — like Camille Paglia, say, or some of my Vulture colleagues — it will supply dopamine hits for every recognizable phrase (“Clip Clip Clip!”) and every “iconic” reference (Tempest in a Tea Party!). So which is it? Is This American Wife meant to be scarifying awfulness or inside-joke-filled comfort viewing? The answer is odd and uncomfortable and wry: both.
That ambivalence isn’t a mistake or a by-product — it’s the subject of the show itself. The people at Fake Friends, the theater collective that also made last year’s live-broadcast comedy Circle Jerk, are connoisseurs of ambivalence, and their sophistication extends to making a show that works in either key. For Circle Jerk, they satirized a certain kind of gay white male who fetishizes power (e.g. Milo Yiannopoulos), while clearly getting their own guilty thrills from playing in his sandbox (cf. Foucault). In that online farce, they scrutinized the meme-ification of everything — if you slowed it down frame by frame, it served as an illustrated dictionary for internet dysfunction. In This American Wife, the group’s focus is narrower: They’re looking at only one corner of their media habitat, where practices of fame and falsehood are particularly condensed. But as they did in Jerk, they’re indicting themselves for their own pleasures.
Despite its ironic tone and theory-tinged critique (several of the Fake Friends met as dramaturgy graduate students at Yale), This American Wife is made from a mind-set of possessive, almost jealous love. Drawing up in a car to a palatial Airbnb in Great Neck, Jakeem Dante Powell, Patrick Foley, and Michael Breslin stare pensively out their windows. Voice-over gives us a little window into their thoughts. Breslin: “I read Brecht, and this voice came into my head: watch Real Housewives.” The McMansion (imagine Versailles did a diffusion line) draws them onward, as does a mysterious blonde figure, Wife. She appears like a ghost, seen only from behind, always beckoning the three men further up and further into the House. Immediately the Friends let us know they’ll be engaging with the show(s) as queer shibboleth — when the three men arrive on the House’s doorstep, summoned by the power of Housewives, they ask one another, shyly and in tones of revelation, “Are you … gay?”
The instant they cross the threshold, there’s a quick change: Contouring makeup smooths and perfects their faces, and their everyday clothes suddenly change into pale-pink Rich People nonsense. Foley, bless him, wears a foulard. At first, the compositional method is basically reference-gavage: They ram a thousand seasons’ worth of Housewives content down our gullets in short order. (Foley and Breslin are credited as writers, working with the FF dramaturges Ariel Sibert and Cat Rodríguez.) As they roam through the house, followed by cameras, the trio act out moments from various seasons, either alone or in company. In one scene-let, Powell plays both parts of a fight from Real Housewives of Potomac — “People like you call me Dr. Wendy; I have four degrees!” — in others, Foley and Breslin run through exchanges that emphasize the unreality of the reality franchise. These are thick on the ground, since cast members like Kim Richards and Bethenny Frankel are constantly accusing others of being “inauthentic,” even as they position themselves in flattering lighting, a full camera crew hovering nearby.
By rattling through so many fragments from so much of the franchise, the details blur, and we perceive their underlying sameness. The basic unit of a Real Housewives episode is an argument, an attempt to clear the air — which is usually an attempt to prolong the argument, but disguised — and then a tearful statement of harm. Outrage is the coin that matters, and the ability to form a creative insult. (As writers themselves, Foley and Breslin pay homage to the wives’ gift for language.) The play is also demonstrating the way in which bits from the shows have worked their way into the modern vocabulary — time has eroded each franchise into GIF-able and tweetable microplastics. It doesn’t matter if you watch it or not, the series’ influence has diffused into your bloodstream. Does it matter that the show elides the difference between fact and fiction? Does it matter that the show has made wealth (or status) and self-pitying rudeness markers for each other? Look at our politics, and wonder.
Eventually, This American Wife’s performers turn the cameras on one another. “Why do you like the Housewives?” the performers ask in reality-style confessionals. They do have answers (Powell talks admiringly about the bodies of the Housewives, then mentions his own self-image issues), but the more they answer, the more fraught the revelations become. A mix of scripted performance and improvisation, the show is simultaneously aping reality television, since it plays with the same ambiguities — for instance, whether the actors are having a fight or manufacturing one — while also demonstrating the evils of an increasingly dominant discourse that operates in this squabble-first, explain-later mode.
At this point, they’re being candid — we think. Breslin and Foley separately tell (too) similar stories, tears in their eyes, about a bad introduction to sex in college. The first time we hear it, it’s painful; the second time, we have to ask, which man is telling the truth? Who owns this story? And once they’ve raised the specter of “owning” stories, the Friends have also summoned a whole host of awkward questions into the room, particularly around the cis gay male’s eagerness to appropriate and inhabit the experiences of women. You can absolutely tell that the whole team has “done the reading” (I assume a metric ton of Baudrillard has been consumed), but they’re not actually willing to show any answers they’ve come up with in discussion. Instead, they would prefer you simply sit with discomfort. Do you find it awkward that Powell first accuses the white performers of racism, then winks at the camera, implying that his accusation was in bad faith? Somewhere, someone on the show is murmuring, “That’s praxis.”
Director Rory Pelsue handles This American Wife’s many cameras with impressive crispness, but the sharp edges set off the moral blurriness contained within it — if you can stand the vertigo, the online play will let you stare directly into a Charybdis of mocked and surgically enhanced aging bodies, commercialized femininity, and a masochistic appetite for more drama, more humiliation, more mess. It’s part of a lineage of queer theater that plays with this hunger for extremity, but it feels new and daring to connect that need to the damage it can do.
Not that it’s all holding a mirror up to hell. The jokes get better as the show goes on and gets more improvisational — Foley, for example, is particularly hilarious on the topic of critics. Foley seizes on the way the Times critic Jesse Green called his writing on last year’s Ratatouille musical “throwaway material,” and he embroiders and decorates his fury over this slight until he’s got several minutes of prop comedy out of it. (This includes buying a copy of Green’s own book that has been discarded from a library.) If we hadn’t just watched a show that demonstrates the emptiness of umbrage on camera … but we have, so we’re on to him. Foley’s eyes twinkle as he tosses the book over one shoulder. A critic made him feel a little bad, and you can tell how much he gets off on it.
This American Wife is streaming through May 29.