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Theatre in Review: Out of Time (NAATCO/The Public Theater)

Page Leong. Photo: Joan Marcus

Collections of one-acts, featuring contributions from multiple writers, are, almost by definition, mixed experiences; the trick lies in assembling and ordering the pieces, ensuring that they fit into the overall concept. Also, they should build on each other, creating a kind of through-line that constantly re-engages the audience's interest. One supposes, then, that Les Waters, who conceived and directed Out of Time, must be considered the culprit. This is a baggy, shapeless collection of monologues featuring Asian American playwrights and performers linked, tenuously, by themes of aging and loss. There may indeed be an engaging and moving production inside this ill-focused offering, which clocks in at a lengthy two-and-a-half hours; at the moment, however, it is hard to discern.

The program begins engagingly with Anna Ouyang Moench's "My Documentary," featuring Page Leong as a filmmaker of a certain age looking back following the death of her husband. Born in Taiwan and raised in the UK, she has an amusingly crisp view of many things, not least the show business "culture of hugging," which she finds, "bizarre." As she notes, "Workplace hugging is a manipulation of human instinct for corporate gain. I hug you, a stranger in a business meeting. A hug is something you do with your loved ones. Therefore, I am one of your loved ones. Therefore, I can skip to a closer level of intimacy. Therefore, you are more likely to do business with me. It benefits both parties, of course. It's mutual efficiency masquerading as love. And I just don't think things should be that easy." That's may be the best explanation ever of the industry's forced bonhomie.

The narrator's story is loaded with fascinating details: the death of her sister in a random accident, her mother's arrest on suspicion of being a communist, and her reunion with the father she didn't really know. Launching her career in documentaries, she meets the love of her life; their marriage is a radiant thing constructed out of many finely observed details. Then tragedy strikes, as it must, and, in a wrenching twist, her attempt at making a film about her sorrows is thwarted. Leong handles the monologue with such assurance -- so fully does she inhabit the character's skin -- that I wasn't sure I wasn't seeing a piece of documentary theatre. Moench is not especially well-known, but we're certain to be hearing more from her.

Next comes the difficult, if intriguing, "Ball in the Air," by Mia Chung. It's almost worth it for the sight of the great Mia Katigbak, a woman of natural authority, demonstrating her considerable skill with a paddleball. Her acting skill is very much needed: The monologue has a tripartite structure, shifting between three moments of dreadful revelation: the morning after the 2016 presidential election, the discovery of a friend's betrayal, and a strange, angry exchange in a car with an unidentified man. At least, I think that's the case; Chung cuts between all three, building tension but scanting on the details. How do the pieces fit? It's never clear. When the ending comes, it is without resolution. Katigbak, one of our best actresses, handles the constant narrative changes with aplomb, but this is not an entirely satisfactory experience.

The first-act closer, Jaclyn Backhaus' "Black Market Caviar," is nearly defeated by what should be an easily solved technical problem. The excellent Rita Wolf is, apparently, onstage behind a diaphanous curtain, although from where I was sitting she wasn't easily spotted. In any case, she appears on a video screen; Backhaus' conceit is that the narrator, Carla, is, in the year 2050, sending a message back to her younger self. (The play is described as taking place in "a portal from somewhere that opens before you on December 31st, 2019." It sounds like something from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.) Carla details the challenges life will bring, including serious illness and a hinted-at apocalypse. The writing is sometimes effective, and Wolf is always a welcome presence, but, distressingly, the poor synchronization of video and sound proves fatally distracting. (I had the oddest sensation of watching one of those badly dubbed Italian Hercules films from the early 1960s.) No projection designer is credited, which, most likely, is the problem. Anyway, the video gimmick is entirely unnecessary; after two years of zoom theatre, the last thing one wants is to focus on another screen.

Naomi Iizuka's "Japanese Folk Song" is, apparently, dedicated to the memory of her father, and one is entirely sorry to report that it is the weakest of the entries. It is the rambling account of Taki, a Japanese American businessman who, despite many setbacks, enjoys the good life until the clock finally runs out on his health. A longtime survivor, beginning with the day in World War II when a bomb fell on his house, he ends up "hooked up to machines," his organs failing. It is a true account of where all of us are headed, but the writing refuses to come to life and Glenn Kubota, who plays Taki, gives a surprisingly flat and unnuanced rendering of this unremarkable tale.

Things start looking up at the beginning of Sam Chanse's "Disturbance Specialist," featuring Natsuko Ohama as Leonie, a noted writer famed for her support of progressive causes who has become the center of controversy following certain remarks. (We never find out what she said, a serious weakness.) Ohama amuses when, surveying her audience with a certain distaste, she remarks, "You didn't want to be here, obviously. You don't want to be here. You don't have to be here. No one's holding a gun to your head and yet: Here you are, anyway. So aren't we lucky." She also has a few things to say about Zoom meetings that will resonate with just about everyone on planet Earth. Sadly, however, the piece bogs down into an extended list of grievances, followed by the realization that years of accrued anger may have contributed to toxic behavior. What at first looks like a satire of excessive political correctness ends up capitulating to it.

Aside from, possibly, "My Documentary," each of the pieces would benefit from substantial cutting; Waters' lackadaisical direction only adds to the feeling of languor. The lack of an overall concept is felt in the generic scenic design, consisting of translucent curtains, by the collective dots, although the lighting design of Reza Behjat at least allows for some interesting looks. Mariko Ohigashi's costumes are okay and Fabian Obispo's sound design contributes some nice jazz selections to "Japanese Folk Songs."

Overall, Out of Time has the feel of a project assembled quickly and without a lot of critical thought. Designed as a showcase for writers and actors, it rarely shows them off to beneficial effect. It certainly makes one feel the passage of time, but not, perhaps, as everyone involved intended. --David Barbour

(2 March 2022)

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