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‘This American Wife’ views ‘Real Housewives’ through a queer looking glass

Three men in pinks, scarves and pearls in a glamorous kitchen.
Michael Breslin, left, Jakeem Dante Powell and Patrick Foley star in “This American Wife.”
(Nina Goodheart)

Sociologists of the future wishing to get a handle on American culture in the first quarter of the 21st century would be advised not to waste too much time analyzing films, novels or plays. Instead, they should concentrate on that most popular afterthought of entertainment known as reality television.

This diverse genre has not only magnified the zeitgeist but in fact molded it. How else to explain the bizarre turn in American politics, in which governing and legislating have become incidental to scene-throwing and spotlight-hogging?

“The Bachelor,” “Survivor” and “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” may not have much in common on the surface, but underlying these shows is an understanding of attention as a competitive sport. Individual story lines are pitted against one another for the grand prize of adulation and envy, mixed in with just enough sympathy to preserve a mirage of credible reality.

It won’t be long before commercial theater dives into the back catalog of these programs to exploit the nostalgia of an age of television demanding only minimal focus from distracted viewers. Soon we’ll be watching Broadway reality musicals while scrolling on dating apps and ordering from Amazon. But before that apocalyptic day, we have something much more fascinating and probing to take in on the virtual stage.

“This American Wife,” a new offering from Fake Friends, the rascally troupe of Yale School of Drama graduates that created sparks last year with “Circle Jerk,” offers a queer deconstruction of the “Real Housewives” franchise. This live-stream multi-camera digital theater offering (co-produced by Jeremy O. Harris, author of “Slave Play” and a fairy godfather of Fake Friends) is as much a philosophical inquiry disguised as a love letter as it is a love letter disguised as a philosophical inquiry.

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Conceived, written and performed by Michael Breslin and Patrick Foley, the duo who wrote the book for “Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical,” the spry internet theater sensation from earlier this year, “This American Wife” invites viewers into a hall of mirrors. The setting is a generic Long Island mansion, one of the popular modern types, bleached of character and decorated, it would seem, by a boutique hotel algorithm.

What’s wrong with using incentives to increase the vaccination rate? The opportunity to see that new musical should be a reward, not a right.

Identity rather than architecture or interior design is the true locus of exploration for Breslin and Foley, who along with collaborating cast member Jakeem Dante Powell, enter this antiseptic wonderland to mix and match personae. They try on attitudes and borrow scripted retorts from their favorite “Real Housewives” episodes to see what might look best in front of the camera, the final arbiter of contemporary reality.

I’ve never sat down to watch any of the “Real Housewives,” but I have not escaped the franchise’s web. My gym would play reruns of the Beverly Hills edition on the hanging monitors, and I’d listen in on the treadmill from time to time, first for a few minutes, later for almost an entire run.

My instinct was to avoid the program, the way Odysseus steered from the island of the Sirens by making his sailors stuff their ears with wax and tie him to the mast. The threat didn’t strike me as mortal so much as a colossal time-suck. I didn’t want to develop a habit that would have me rising from the couch groggy from the vicissitudes of an embattled day with Lisa Vanderpump.

I lack the scholarly credentials to annotate the myriad references to plot points and put-downs in “This American Wife.” Any allusions to meltdowns mediated by Andy Cohen flew right over my head. I nonetheless found the experience enthralling.

The show, directed by Rory Pelsue and featuring dramaturgy by Cat Rodríguez and Ariel Sibert, represents an ingenious hybrid of stage and screen. The actors, comfortable in both realms, slip in and out of the frame with an outsize energy that at times approaches the ecstatic lunacy of Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company.

Like Ludlam, Breslin, Foley and Powell understand gender as a series of ill-fitting costumes to be worn and shed with abandon. The performers are draped in pastels, but the chiffon dazzle goes deeper than drag. This is about making space for bodies that fall outside of conventional schemes and spirits that refuse to be relegated to invisible margins.

The production doesn’t hide the discrepancies between actor and role. Breslin finds inspiration in the Beverly Hills cast while Powell derives empowerment from the Atlanta crew. But the escapist fantasies are painfully see-through, and demure décolletage eventually gives way to chest hair and pecs.

Timeline of a comeback: historic cancellation of an entire season, painful layoffs, transformation into a recording studio, a whirlwind race to reopen.

The performers are interviewed in and out of their various masks, but where does reality lie in an amoral world of pretend? Foley co-opts a sexual trauma of Breslin’s to juice up a flagging story line. The violation is cruel, but all’s fair in the edited world of television friendship.

Indeed, nothing is sacred in the ruthless American game of self-dramatization, not even the racial alienation experienced by Powell, the sole Black cast member. Sarcasm and irony serve as armor, but scars are glimpsed and loneliness and shame aren’t erased by a killer comeback.

“This American Wife” doesn’t have the rampaging vigor of “Circle Jerk,” but it’s a more disciplined production. And the animating critical intelligence behind the work is more wholly embodied in a medium that is as much of a collage as the identities on mercilessly ostentatious display.

‘This American Wife’

When: Livestreaming at 5 p.m. Pacific Monday and Wednesday-Saturday. Video on-demand recording May 31-June 6.

Tickets: $5-$50

Info: thisamericanwife.live

Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes


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