Ian Bruce and Lloyd Suh Chew on the Dinner-Party in Groundswell and American Hwangap
From Seneca to Shakespeare to the current Broadway season, our theater loves to throw a dinner party. However varied the menu, however diverse the guest list, stage banquets almost invariably include an appetizer of pleasantries, an entrée of revelation, and recrimination for dessert. Delicious, no? If the start of the meal resembles a Norman Rockwell portrait of full plates and smiling faces, the stage will owe more to Francis Bacon by the time the finger bowls arrive.
Two new works—Ian Bruce's Groundswell, a South African crime drama, and American Hwangap, Lloyd Suh's Korean-American family play—center on dinner parties. While Bruce adheres to the form, Suh adjusts it—shirking concentrated conflict and all but avoiding the meal itself. Yet both plays depict the dining table as a perilous place. Statisticians may cite the bathroom and kitchen as the most dangerous rooms in the home, but theater will tell you it's the dining room every time.
Bruce's Groundswell, produced by the New Group, checks into Garnet Lodge, a ramshackle guesthouse on South Africa's West Coast. The owners have departed for the winter, leaving the cottage in the care of Thami (Souléymane Sy Savané), the black gardener. Thami has aspirations beyond hoeing and raking, which are fed by Johan (David Lansbury), a white man who works as a diver for a diamond concern, searching the sea floor for precious stones, and who is also the lodge's handyman. Johan insists that he and Thami can acquire a diamond concession of their own, but he lacks the ready cash and hopes to convince the lodge's sole guest, a wealthy-seeming businessman named Smith (Larry Bryggman), to invest in this scheme. To that end, Johan has Thami cook an excellent supper and provide copious wine. Should the culinary stratagem fail, Johan makes his own separate arrangements—he conceals a sizeable knife in a drawer near the table.
Before Thami agrees to let his friend come to dinner, he makes Johan promise to abstain from alcohol and bad behavior. "No stories about peeing in your wetsuit," he instructs him. "No showing off how loud you can fart, or . . . or any of that. No striptease and definitely no lectures about your rubbish politics." Of course, Johan commits all these etiquette gaffes—and worse ones, too. Once the subject of Apartheid is raised, the dinner devolves into an unseemly session of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Then it turns violent. Disturbed by Johan's conduct, yet unwilling to abandon his dreams of private enterprise, Thami must decide whether to rescue Smith or condemn him.
If Bruce's script relies on a familiar form, he manages to inject excellent convolutions into its content and characters. The play's politics aren't easy to unpack and—on the page, at least—one doesn't know whether to embrace or detest the three men at its center. Johan, a former police officer, has committed terrible injustices against blacks, yet he seems to genuinely esteem Thami. Lest Thami seem altogether too noble, Bruce shows him to be amenable to black-market dealings and willing to exploit his family's suffering to shame Smith into investing. At first, Smith may seem like a typical fat cat, a man who has benefited from racial inequity. Forced to take early retirement, he displays a cynicism toward the new South Africa; he defines affirmative action as "giving the advantages earned by one man to another man." Yet when threatened by Johan, he reveals himself as a proponent of liberal politics who supported anti-Apartheid charities and sent his daughter to an integrated school.
Of course, director Scott Elliott reduces many of these complexities. In previous plays, Elliott has encouraged his actors toward overly broad characterization, and Groundswell proves no exception. Lansbury plays Johan as a psychopath from the first, truncating his character's arc. Meanwhile, Sy Savané—though making a compelling stage debut—endows Thami with so much innate decency that it trumps any of the character's bad actions. Only Bryggman manages to dine at Elliott's table and remain a thrilling cipher, portraying a man both aggrieving and aggrieved, at once genial and despicable.
That same divided nature could also describe Min Suk Chun (James Saito), the patriarch in Suh's American Hwangap, a Play Company/Ma-Yi co-production. Min Suk journeys across the world to arrive for dinner at eight. Fifteen years earlier—laid off from his engineering job and disenchanted with his adopted country—he had decamped from a Texas suburb back to Korea. But on the eve of his 60th birthday, he returns to celebrate Hwangap, a banquet held to honor an individual's completion of the 60-year zodiac cycle.
Though Suh doesn't stage much of the banquet itself, he lavishes attention on its preparations. Min Suk's wife, Mary (Mia Katigbak), and daughter, Esther (Michi Barall), confer about dumplings. Son Ralph (Peter Kim) enthuses over "dduk-gook and some gahl-bee" and shucks bean sprouts. During these scenes, Suh flashes forward to brief moments during the dinner, when Mary, Esther, and Ralph each offer a ceremonial toast to Min Suk. Suh also scripts the banquet's aftermath, which finds Min Suk, drunk and trouserless, wedged in a backyard tree.
The play takes an unusually tender-hearted attitude toward Min Suk, never really facing him with the emotional and financial depredations his departure wrought upon his family. If Suh is reluctant to write those scenes, he overwrites others. His dialogue is effective, but the longer speeches tend toward the artificial and indulgent, as when the troubled Ralph describes his mental state as "teetering toward a very nearby precipice beneath which is untold personal misery and psychological disaster." Still, director Trip Cullman and his excellent cast compensate for some of the script's deficiencies. Cullman stages the play briskly and with a minimum of fuss, hurrying the actors on to the next scene, while encouraging succinct displays of nuance and emotive force.
Suh's refusal to write the central dinner scene is formally interesting, but also somewhat faint-hearted. The play seems to require that central confrontation, but Suh dodges it. That's a pity. Having discussed the dumplings, the dduk-gook, and the frosted cake, Suh shouldn't let them go untasted. Min Suk would seem to agree: After the fete, he peers from his maple tree perch at his unhappy family and muses, "Good party."
Get the Theater Newsletter
Get a rundown of upcoming theater events and ticket deals in New York.