Americans say the darndest things. That’s the quick takeaway from Dan Hoyle’s earnest, kaleidoscopic 70-minute solo “The Real Americans” at Mosaic Theater Company, in which the wiry Hoyle plays people he met on the road over the past several years of political tumult.
When Hoyle hits Harlan County, Ky., his regional accent gets thicker than an unmined mountain. The way he translates the old man — somehow without mocking him — is hilarious.
In Alabama, Hoyle toggles between a black ex-con who can’t believe Barack Obama got elected and, separately, a white man claiming, “Right now we need to be worryin’ about Muslims.”
“It’s funny how heritage works, isn’t it?” says the white man’s wife.
You get the picture. It's the heartland mosaic channeled through Hoyle's inquisitive (and liberal) perspective. It's John Steinbeck writing "Travels With Charley," only Hoyle drives a van instead of a converted pickup. It's Anna Deavere Smith mimicking interview subjects verbatim onstage, though some of Hoyle's figures are composites.
It's Charlie Varon, a fellow solo performer who directed this show, doing the mischievous "Rush Limbaugh in Night School," mashing the strident left and right together during the Clinton years — only in place of Varon's puckish farce we get Hoyle's earnest prayers for reconciliation.
When it clicks, it's just what you want to hear: all-over-the-map voices making sense of what seems to be the country's spinning compass. The grass-roots-listening approach contrasts sharply with Mosaic's production of "Vicuña and the American Epilogue," Jon Robin Baitz's furious soapbox Trump satire playing down the hall in the Atlas Performing Arts Center.
The only snag in Hoyle’s fabric is whether it starts fast enough and goes deep enough. It’s hard not to caricature and even stereotype when the portraits flash through so fast. Even Hoyle’s self-awareness isn’t always enough to keep the show pressing into fresh territory.
“The bubble misses you. It’s beautiful in here,” one of Hoyle’s liberal city buddies says while he’s on the road.
When Hoyle lands on a strong story, though, the characters take him over, body and voice. "What's the deal with the South?" he asks one of his Southern-raised pals, and the soft-spoken woman's reply suddenly blazes with internalized conflict. A man named Ramon with roots in the Dominican Republic is especially vivid, and he's the funniest figure in the show as he insists on his right as a New Yorker never to be boring.
Also in Hoyle’s favor: The show premiered in 2010, and the angry outsider voices he captured have only been amplified since. As a witty performer, he’s fearless, whether playing his precious hipster friends or going way outside his philosophical comfort zone with a self-proclaimed hillbilly quietly arming for revolution. As a rather melancholy writer bummed out by perpetual prejudice, he’s onto something that still needs more shape.
The Real Americans, written and performed by Dan Hoyle. Directed by Charlie Varon. Lighting and set design, E-hui Woo; sound design, David Hines. About 70 minutes. Through Dec. 17 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. Tickets: $45-$50. Call 202-399-7993 or visit mosaictheater.org.