At first glance, the premise of Julia Jarcho's American Treasure seems clever; the production evokes film noir and Hollywood western styles to unfold a gossamer-thin "story" about a "Real History Detective," a "vagabond with a harrowing past," a malevolent human taxidermist, and "a paper trail of blood and tears that goes all the way back to this nation’s beginning—or somewhere else." Actors Aaron Landsman and Jenny Seastone Stern play multiple characters, most of them communicating in a style common to parodies of black and white detective flicks. But this affectation wears thin almost immediately, and beneath all this minimalist deadpan lurks a heart of inscrutable darkness.
Jarcho is part of the Richard Maxwell school of downtown theater, which aims to strip away any theatrical element deemed superfluous to get at the essence of real human behavior and language. If you're wondering what qualifies as superfluous, when it comes to Maxwell, the answer is almost all of it. When his exacting method works, as it did for me in plays such as Caveman, Drummer Wanted, and Joe, the effect is bracing, fascinating, and unique. Jarcho's approach to American Treasure, which she also directed, is similarly pared down to the essential. The problem is that this essence remains frustratingly opaque. The onion has been peeled away past its last layer, and at the center is 85 minutes of gnomic dialogue and monologue.
In a recent profile on Jarcho, Time Out's Helen Shaw declared that American Treasure "never panders to our narrative addiction." Setting aside the notion that theatergoers who enjoy stories belong in a 12-step program, it is true that some of the most exciting work in today's theater transcends received narrative structures. But it's not Jarcho's disdain for conventional narrative that bored me to tears here, it's the absence of any engaging theatricality or compelling writing to take its place. And her two capable actors seemed stultified, not liberated, by the uniformly deadpan style. Perhaps there are some novel observations about the foul fruit of colonial genocide buried in here, but the script's high pile of abstruse banter left me alienated. If you have the patience to sift through this and find any real gold, you'll certainly earn it.