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Theatre in Review: Washer/Dryer (Ma-Yi Theater Company/Theatre Row)

Jamyl Dobson, Nandita Shenoy. Photo: Isaih Tannebaum.

Are they teaching Norman Krasna in the playwriting programs these days? That's one explanation for Washer/Dryer, a play that, except for its multicultural cast of characters, is a dead ringer for such old-fashioned mid-century sex frolics as Who Was That Lady I Saw You With?, Sunday in New York, and Love in E-Flat. It's also possible that the author and star, Nandita Shenoy, sees this project as a calling card aimed at network executives looking to stock up for pilot season. What it's doing on the production slate of Ma-Yi Theater Company, heretofore known as a presenter of serious plays, is anybody's guess.

The most Krasnerian thing about Washer/Dryer -- if I may coin a term -- is its gimmick-laden setup. Michael and Sonya have been dating for several weeks and, on a Groupon-inspired trip to Las Vegas, have run off to the Little White Chapel to make it legal. Back in New York, reality sets in, along with numerous complications: Michael moves into Sonya's Manhattan studio apartment, which the co-op board has declared a single-occupancy unit. This means Michael has to constantly pass himself off as a visitor to his own home, daily walking a gauntlet past the building's nosy doorman.

Unsurprisingly, Michael is disturbed by this arrangement, but Sonya, an actress of only middling success, has sunk her last dime into the place and refuses to surrender it -- especially since it comes with the amenity of the title. (The sight of Manhattanites falling over, dazed with admiration, at the sight of in-house laundry facilities is funny at first, but the joke pales when repeated, oh, 17 times.) In any case, neither Sonya nor Michael, a freelance writer and Times stringer, has the cash to buy a place in a good neighborhood.

Adding to the stress: Michael, who is Asian, has not only failed to tell his mother about the marriage, he hasn't even fessed up to Sonya's existence. Mrs. Lee -- make that Doctor Lee, because she will insist on it -- is a walking, talking monster of momism, convinced that no woman is good enough for her son. ("She's not a psychotic stalker," insists Michael, defensively. "She's an Asian mother!") Finding out the truth about Sonya, Dr. Lee sniffs, "The quickie wedding in Vegas. This could be like some Kardashian thing." (Didn't the City Council pass a law against Kardashian references in comedies? Well, they should get right on that.)

When Wendee, the loose nerve ending who runs the co-op board shows up, Sonya does what anyone would do, at least in plays like this: She passes off Michael as her gay best friend. This is really confusing, because Sonya already has a gay best friend in Sam, a tall black interior decorator who says "girlfriend" and "child" a lot and constantly references America's Next Top Model. However, this allows Michael to accuse Wendee of anti-gay discrimination, sending her into a tizzy. Wendee leaps to the conclusion that Michael and Sam are heartbroken exes; this allows Sam to rip Michael's shirt open and kiss him passionately in front of the others.

Other elements include an enormous suitcase filled with Hindu wedding accoutrements (Sonya is of Indian descent); a PlayStation hidden in the dryer (you can count the minutes until the dryer is turned on); Sam hiding in a closet wrapped in a sari; Dr. Lee breaking and entering into the apartment, where she prepares a wok meal while bopping to Carly Rae Jepsen singing "Call Me Maybe;" and Wendee, who is unhappy about her gay teenage son, turning to Dr. Lee for tips about being a gay-friendly parent. As they say, hilarity ensues. Or not.

Despite the rampant silliness, Washer/Dryer is good-natured and Shenoy can write a funny line. Asking Sonya about her audition that day and getting a dire look in return, Michael says, sympathetically, "I thought you'd make a good Ethnic Shopper #3." A reliable laugh is earned by Sonya's description of the building: "A multiple-dwelling complex run by a small group of petty people who voted themselves into power so they could judge and pry and make everyone's life miserable. A New York City co-op." But the script is overladen with gags -- mechanical gags, cheap-shot gags, gags that have nothing to do with the characters. Michael accuses Sonya of dishonesty, and furiously notes how he deceives Dr. Lee. "That's different," he says. "I've been lying to my mother for years." Sonya, who earned her down payment by appearing in a Monistat ad, refers to the apartment as "the house that yeast built." Dr. Lee says, "In Chinese culture, sons are like gifts from God." Wendee replies, "Yes, I have read that. In National Geographic or some such."

Under Benjamin Kamine's blessedly light-fingered direction, at least all this silliness goes down fairly painlessly. Shenoy makes a charming leading lady, especially when trying to deal with a facial tic -- a grimace, really -- that strikes every time she says the word "marriage." (If she becomes a little grating when constantly calling Michael "puppy," she has only herself -- the author -- to blame.) Johnny Wu is ingratiating as Michael, especially as he begins to get the feeling that Sonya doesn't love him as much as she loves her apartment. Instead of overdoing the flamboyant-black-gay-guy thing as Sam, Jamyl Dobson earns some genuine laughs by throwing away his lines. Annie McNamara's Wendee is an urban bird of prey, waving the Tolstoy-sized book of co-op rules and scouring the joint for violations. Jade Wu's Dr. Lee is a brazen, full-bore caricature, which is probably the only way to go here.

The rest of the production is notably slick, including Anshuman Bhatia's detail-perfect rendering of Sonya's apartment, right down to the poster on the wall advertising Sonya's appearance in the play Moonlight and Magnolias (a play with only a smallish female role). Dede Ayite's costumes are perfectly keyed to each character. Jonathan Cottle's lighting and Miles Polaski's sound (the latter includes a playlist of such pop hits as "Born This Way" and "Teenage Dream" as well as some effective voiceover sequences) are thoroughly professional.

A pre-show announcement proudly notes that Ma-Yi is the largest entity in the universe currently providing opportunities for Asian-American playwrights. That's nice, but what happens when they start turning out the kind of script that would have run for three weeks on Broadway in 1966? It makes you think -- something that never, ever happens during Washer/Dryer. -- David Barbour


(3 February 2016)

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