"We believe that the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America." Those were among the most infamous words spoken by Sarah Palin during the 2008 election, when she was doing her damnedest to help John McCain lose his bid for the presidency. It was a desperate moment in an increasingly desperate campaign — a sound bite that probably contributed to the erosion of her popularity among independents.
Of course, Palin's notion of "the real America" just happened to coincide with her narrow exposure to the American experience. Real Americans were, for her, predominantly white, blue-collar fundamentalists from rural communities. She pursued them aggressively throughout the campaign by appealing to their many resentments, and tens of millions responded with complete adulation.
These days, her approval ratings have slipped below 40 percent. Encouraging as that may be to anyone who considers a Palin presidency reason enough to move to Vancouver, it's still baffling to imagine that she remains idolized by anyone — let alone a third of likely voters. Self-absorbed coastal types have never been particularly good at understanding rural America, but the last decade seems to have intensified our bewilderment. And that bewilderment — that sense of alienation from how the other half of America thinks and lives — serves as the inspiration behind Dan Hoyle's fantastic new one-man show at the Marsh.
The Real Americans is an ideal vehicle for Hoyle's brand of inspired mimicry. After embarking on a cross-country road trip to the reddest of red states, he has constructed a show in which he plays a slew of Middle American characters: a Reagan Democrat, a closeted fundamentalist, a reformed hippie. In a wondrous, immersive performance, Hoyle shifts his body and contorts his face so that he instantly embodies men and women of all ages, even pulling off a bang-up impression of Barack Obama.
The result is several magnitudes better than what usually passes for political theater around here. Broadly speaking, political pieces tend to congratulate liberal audiences on what they already know, but The Real Americans distinguishes itself by offering a slightly nuanced look at modern conservatism while taking a few well-aimed shots at the smugness and cluelessness of San Francisco lefties. It's by no means a conservative show — the play's viewpoint is unapologetically liberal. But Hoyle is more genuinely curious about his ideological opponents than many of us who reside in what he calls the "urban PC bubble."
The show opens with four of Hoyle's friends meeting him for brunch in San Francisco. ("I hate yuppie brunch," he tells us. "It's so pretentious, but it's so good.") Right from the start, he demonstrates his talent for single-handedly populating an entire table. In this case, he creates a set of distinct characters who each typify something mildly obnoxious about this city's dwellers, from the guy who won't stop touching his iPhone to the cheapskate who claims to hate capitalism. ("I just don't really believe in buying," the latter explains.) It's frankly hard to imagine these particular urban stereotypes having much patience for each other in real life, but that's not the point. The point is that typical San Franciscans don't understand any more about the Palinites than the Palinites understand about them. Exasperated by the conversation over brunch — and frustrated by his own lack of understanding — Hoyle starts his trek in search of Palin's real America.
On that trip, he runs into a redneck who sagely observes that "terrorists never mess with Alabama." He finds himself calling waitresses "sweetheart." He meets near-strangers who don't think it's presumptuous to pray for the safety of his soul before serving him food. He even tries to explain the logic of evolution to a skeptical crowd at a Fourth of July dinner. (That exchange in particular prompts Hoyle to return to his van and offer up a quick prayer: "Thank you for having my country founded by liberal elites and not by fundamentalist Christians," he says.)
The show's most powerful scene concerns a Dominican-American veteran of the war in Afghanistan. After moving from New York City to the Midwest, he finds himself the subject of suspicious glances at the local greasy spoon — even facing the skepticism of a Vietnam vet who clearly believes that a dark-skinned guy with a thick accent could only have served under the Taliban. "Don't talk to me like I'm not a fuckin' American," the Dominican vet says. "I'm America now." It's that final phrase Palin's fans can't quite grasp — the fact that they've been left behind by an increasingly diverse culture — and it's enough to make you pity any American so "real" that he or she can't adjust to a shifting reality.
Much of the genius of Hoyle's show lies in the fact that he traveled across the country to listen and observe rather than simply argue. Yes, he has his moments of lefty evangelism, most of which fail to sway the people he encounters. But by and large, The Real Americans is a rare and sincere attempt to create political theater that doesn't simply confirm its own premises — in fact, it's political theater that succeeds in expanding rather than contracting its audiences' horizons. Hoyle is brilliant, the show is a revelation, and you shouldn't even consider missing it.