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Twenty-First Century Breakdown

The phony, empty-headed mess that is American Idiot.

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Remember the aughts? Or naughts? Or whatever we finally decided to call those crappy Bush years? No? Then you, my friend, are the target audience for American Idiot, Michael Mayer’s dizzyingly miscalculated adaptation of the excellent 2004 concept album by the pop-punk band Green Day. But this musical—a half-exploitative, half-lobotomized attempt to fake a youthgasm—has none of the power of that album, coming as it does from a now-middle-aged rocker (composer, book writer, and Green Day front man Billie Joe Armstrong) and director (Mayer, who proposed and co-conceived this embarrassing feedback loop in the afterglow of Spring Awakening’s success). It’s a self-described “rock opera” set in a self-created “Recent Past,” and it purports to evoke, with a single tear and a power chord, the confusing days of the terror-stricken early 21st century, when we yo-yoed from cowed powerlessness to inchoate fury. Well, confusing and inchoate this show most definitely is: Its version of youthful anomie is so far off the mark, and such a muddled conflation of vague Gen-X nostalgia and generic rebellion sample tracks, that the effect is almost comical. But mostly just irritating.

Now, Broadway’s always been a natural home for the toweringly, preposterously false. But even graded on that forgiving curve, Idiot shocks and stultifies. Calling something a “rock opera,” we soon realize, is a handy vaccination against the need for narrative (though I seem to remember something storylike about Tommy, Hair, and Spring Awakening). The tale, such as it is, unfolds more or less according to the track lineup on the album: We jerk from one hooky three-chord contusion to the next on the trails of three angry young men, all of whom, tellingly, possess permutations of Armstrong’s hairdo. Johnny (John Gallagher Jr., from Spring Awakening), Will (Michael Esper), and Tunny (Stark Sands) are scruffy, bird-flipping mopes who live in the soulless suburb of Jingletown. (Not to be confused, I guess, with the Oakland, California, that the show’s hairstyles and T-shirts more readily evoke?) Tired of watching wars on TV, and apparently unaware of this “Internet” fad (these disaffected hipster dudes write each other florid, Beat-y postcards), they decide to hit the road. Johnny, styling himself the “Jesus of Suburbia,” jumps a Greyhound bound for New York City and a by-the-numbers heroin addiction. (A dance involving a rubber tie-off supplies the night’s one genuinely inspired theatrical idea.) He meets a girl named Whatsername (Rebecca Naomi Jones) and must choose between her and St. Jimmy (Tony Vincent, late of Superstar and Rent), who represents Anger or Heroin or whatever, and looks like a cross between Boy George and a leather gearshift.

Meanwhile, Will knocks up his girlfriend (Mary Faber) and gets stuck in Jingletown, spending most of this musical on a couch (a first?); Tunny joins the army and loses a leg in Iraq, but finds love with an “extraordinary girl” (Christina Sajous) who nurses him back to health. Along the way, we’re treated to some wildly abortive coups de theatre: a bizarre number involving a glamorized military officer in his tighty-whiteys; a flying burka-clad woman who sports I Dream of Jeannie underthings; and IV bags lowered slowly and dramatically from the flies. Egad. (If you want to see tonally cogent, post-punk camp that knows it’s post-punk camp, head on down to Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson at the Public.)

By the finale, lessons have been learned, innocence has been lost, and one character actually utters: “Is this the end? Or just the beginning?” (That’s “ ... and they lived happily ever after” for the Ouroboros-tattoo set.) Spoiler alert: It’s the end. The curtain falls, with excruciating slowness, then rises again to reveal the cast, all playing guitars. They sing “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)”; the song is not from the American Idiot album, but it’s catchy, it’s recognizable, and it will do for an encore. And, like the similarly catchy Idiot songs, it conjures nothing so much as nostalgia for itself. The cast plays it reverently, yet it’s glaringly obvious that many of them aren’t exactly rocking out—in fact, most of them look like they’re air-strumming. Which, come to think of it, is at the heart of everything that is wrong with this purely gestural pantomime of astounding emptiness. It’s a piece without a period, a geist without a Zeit—or a clue. The lissome ensemble does its best to hold American Idiot aloft, but the show’s smothering affectation and tacky synthesis visibly drain the kids’ brio like an aging hipster vampire. They thrash and perspire—the only two moves in the show’s seizure-inspired choreographic vocabulary—and, in the end, they’re doomed ... to perform this hectically irrelevant pageant eight times a week.


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