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Theatre in Review: Time's Journey Through a Room (The Play Company/ART New York Theatre)

Maho Honda, Kensaku Shinohara, Yuki Kawahisa. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.

Near the beginning of Time's Journey Through a Room, we see a man, seated with his back to the audience in a notably sterile-looking living room. Standing, down front, speaking directly to the audience, the actress Maho Honda says, "In a little while, I will come to this room. This person invited me here. 'Will you come to this room?' he asked, so I'm coming. And I am going to become this person's new girlfriend. Gradually and slowly." The reason for the "gradually and slowly" part may have to do with the fact that the man, Kazuki, appears to be living with another woman, Honoka, who simply can't stop talking.

Honoka's favorite topic is her innate feeling of happiness. Indeed, she notes, even the sound of a passing ambulance adds to it. The same is true of crying babies, which once irritated her no end, but not anymore. Then, she says, "When the earthquake happened, at first, fear and sadness and anxiety and also this feeling of not knowing what to do were all mixed up. But afterwards, we felt happiness. A joyful feeling we had never experienced before. You remember that, don't you? I'm so glad that earthquake happened, for us."

Well, that's an eye-opener. Honoka, we soon learn, was Kazuki's wife; from the few meager clues supplied by script, she appears to have been in life a rather tense, unhappy person. But, following the earthquake, she underwent a transformation, becoming, even in the wake of the tsunami and nuclear accident that followed, almost beatific in her demeanor -- until, four days later, she died of the asthma that had plagued her periodically since childhood. Kazuki is starting over, about to commence a relationship with Arisa (Honda's character). The rest of this brief, but calculatedly slow-moving, piece tracks the new couple's glacial progress toward the hand-holding phase while Honoka continues to haunt Kazuki. "Hey," Honoka says. "No matter how much you close your eyes, you can't not see me; you can only pretend that you cannot see me. That's because you are not seeing me with your eyes. You are desperately seeking some place inside you, inside your body that you can close up so you no longer see me, right? But you can't find it."

The idea of a romantic relationship haunted by a deceased partner is hardly a new one; seeing Time's Journey Through a Room, my mind kept drifting, perversely, to thoughts of Blithe Spirit, if only because Noel Coward's farce, based on a similar notion, couldn't be more different in style and content. In previous works, such as Zero Cost House and The Sonic Life of a Giant Tortoise, the playwright Toshiki Okada seemed to allude to the economic and spiritual disenfranchisement of a generation of young Japanese men and women who came of age in a society that has lost its sense of purpose. As the excerpts above indicate, this time out he is grappling with the effects of the Fukushima disaster, which shattered the belief of many Japanese in their country's institutions. In a recent interview, he admits to being distressed that these cataclysmic events didn't lead to fundamental change, a comment that shines an ironic light on Honoka's insistence that, post-earthquake, she experienced a new level of happiness -- for the four days left of her life. In a way, Kazuki is a stand-in for Japan itself, poised -- caught, really -- between past and present, trying to embrace a banal normality even as terrible memories linger.

Okada, a student of Brecht and Beckett, isn't really interested in dramatizing this situation; instead, he slows it down, inviting us to find meaning in the tiniest of gestures. Events unfold at a pace that may confound many Americans in the audience. First, Arisa is late for her date with Kazuki, thanks to a traffic accident. When she arrives, she stands in the doorway for a long while, seemingly unable to step through the entry into a new life. When she and Kazuki finally get together on the couch, their progress is halting, a breakthrough occurring only when they make mutual admissions of weakness. And still Honoka rattles on, recalling how, during those four momentous days of the disaster, the television was left on, continually. "You couldn't forget that time, can you? I know you can hear me," she says.

Indeed, Kazuki can hear Honoka; earlier, he responded to her comments. Nevertheless, the play's approximately one-hour running time is an exercise in dramatic stasis. As in his earlier works, Okada occupies his own peculiar terrain, located on the border between contemplation and ennui. Time's Journey Through a Room is never dull, yet it never deeply engages. And once again, one is left wondering if, in its detachment -- not to mention its allusion to still-recent traumatic events -- the play may have much more to say to a homegrown audience.

There's little reason to doubt that Dan Rothenberg's production is in stylistic sync with the playwright's intentions, although Anna Kiraly's set may strike one as strange. (Why design a sparely furnished space with no d├ęcor when Kazuki is going to talk about his plans to change the wallpaper?) In any case, Amith Chandrashaker's lighting cues change in the emotional atmosphere through subtle shifts of color. The director creates many stage pictures that illuminate this strange triangle, the most notable of which may be Kazuki and Arisa on the couch, with Honoka visible, like a ghost, through a panel of frosted glass upstage. Honda brings a quiet elegance to the role of Arisa and Yuki Kawahisa keeps Honoka's run-on speeches flowing without ever becoming an irritant. Kensaku Shinohara ably suggests a deep unease behind Kazuki's deadpan demeanor. Maiko Matsushima's costumes feel appropriate, and Mikaal Sulaiman's sound design includes a pre-show playlist that incorporates the Randy Newman song "I Think It's Going to Rain Today."

I see I haven't mentioned the production's opening sequence, which is not indicated in the script. It involves a series of lighting cues involving LED tape in a tiny enclosed space, creating a kind of infinity box effect, followed by a backlit look that seems to suggest a solar eclipse. It is striking, if strangely remote; you can say the same about Time's Journey Through a Room. -- David Barbour

(21 May 2018)

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