Noh Business


Everybody,” according to the old joke, “has 20/20 hindsight.” A.R. Gurney does, anyway. Set on a U.S. Navy base near Tokyo in 1955, Far East is Gurney’s version of America’s transactions with Asia since World War II— Madame Butterfly meets Mailer’s Why Are We in Vietnam?. Being a proficient fabricator of middle-class entertainments, he takes his matrix from the former work: His Pinkerton is Lieutenant (jg) “Sparky” Watts, newly arrived on base and already involved with a Japanese girl (whom we never see) employed as a waitress at the officers’ club. Sparky, sensitive scion of the beer-enriched Milwaukee elite, doesn’t mean to be a faithless Pinkerton; he’s eager to immerse himself in the local culture and develop a long-term relationship.

But Sparky doesn’t know what he really wants. He’s flippant enough to see his navy stint as merely another rung up on the ladder (next stop Harvard Business School), but at the same time dedicated enough to turn in his best buddy, a closet-gay code officer who’s been blackmailed into passing top secret reports— about undercover ARVN infiltrators in North Vietnam— to enemy agents. The treatment of this subplot shows Gurney’s expertise as a craftsman, with a skilled eye for details and a sense of dramatic fairness that’s tastefully determined to see all sides and offend no one. The smuggled data was partly wrong (though somebody on our side got killed), the lawyer
assigned to defend the sufferer is a time-serving klutz, the guy doesn’t get court-martialed because the top brass wants to soft-pedal the whole thing, and so on. No inaccuracies, no melodramatics, no stagy suicide— and almost nothing of interest, except for the brief, bone-chilling scene in which the blackmailed gay learns to what extent the klutzy lawyer has fucked up his life.

At least, though, the subplot keeps you interested in how Gurney plans to balance his research and his tact against his entertainer’s instinct; you wait to see if the theatrical sum will add up to a plus. The main plot, meanwhile, gives you almost nothing. Having pushed his love story offstage— imagine Madama Butterfly without Cio-Cio-San— Gurney fills the resulting vacuum with the captain and his wife, each of whom, for opposite reasons, develops a kinship with Sparky. The ensuing pressures destroy both their marriage and Sparky’s affair with his invisible-san, in ways that hold no surprises— especially since their scenes are padded out with jokey allusions that suggest Gurney has academic friends who’ve been preaching the gospel of “intertextuality.” (Just typing that loathsome piece of academic jargon makes me shudder.)

Besides Butterfly itself, every late-’40s or early-’50s film, novel, or pop song with either a military or Asian angle to it has been glued into the text. Sparky visits the set of The Bridges at Toko-Ri (being shot in Japan at the time), one of several James Michener works to rate a reference, along with South Pacific and the 1954 bestseller Sayonara. (The gay officer is learning about Hiroshige from his blackmailing lover, an art dealer, which makes their affair a double allusion to Michener’s other ’54 publication, The Floating World, a study of ukiyo prints and the sexually loose underground that spawned them.) The captain shares his last name, Anderson, with the author of Tea and Sympathy; his wife, who worries about Sparky being “different,” asks him to accompany her to From Here to Eternity; when she invades his barracks at night, the radio’s playing the title song from Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing, based on Han Suyin’s weepy novel about a Eurasian woman’s love for a U.S. Army doctor.

Apart from the coy snickers they occasionally raise, these little signposts have no purpose except misdirection; they’re the playwriting equivalent of a magician declaring he has nothing up his sleeve. But Gurney’s arch willingness to point out all his sources is the only trick he’s got, because what’s the shocker in his drama? Why, when push comes to shove, the white boy really wants a woman of his own race and class. And Japanese parents don’t want their daughters to marry us either. So put that in your melting pot and smelt it.

This conclusion’s doubly gratuitous, since it not only hasn’t been dramatized— Sparky’s change of heart, like his love affair, happens offstage— in historical terms it’s pure nonsense. The play is set at the end of a decade of military occupation, during which any number of American officers and enlisted men had brought home Japanese wives. Surely by 1955 the Pentagon would have noticed this and invented some general policy for dealing with it. Gurney makes the Andersons carry on as if no one had ever heard of such a thing. Many of these marriages inevitably ended in divorce or worse, but a good many didn’t; the Vietnam experience Gurney’s characters are gearing up for only expanded that complex reality. He doesn’t seem to notice, either, that America had held a fair number of Asian-born citizens even before World War II, even if they couldn’t make the cut at Milwaukee’s snootier country clubs.

Part of the absurdity comes from Daniel Sullivan’s production, which, presumably with Gurney’s active connivance, turns his cozily ironic American story into a piece of purest melting-pottery by grafting Japanese theater conventions onto its movie-terse American scenes. A benshi, or narrator, seated above the action, speaks all the minor roles; two black-clad stagehands move the furniture. The backdrops on Tom Lynch’s elegant set extend motifs from Japanese wood-block prints or calligraphy, beginning a lush wall of Hiroshige-style waves. The ’50s pop tunes flow seamlessly into and out of the clacking woodblocks, gongs, and other musical appurtenances of Noh theater and Kabuki. Sullivan handles all this with consummate skill.

Unusually for him, he’s less successful with the acting, though Lisa Emery, as always, makes the captain’s wife a strongly centered and moving figure, and Connor Trinneer, a newcomer, gives the closeted friend the right air of buried pain. But Bill Smitrovich, as the captain, coasts with TV-bred smoothness over the role’s surface, and the hero’s bumptious cluelessness gives Michael Hayden the cue for another of his bouncy, glib, vocally constricted, gee-whiz performances. Those who like their Butterfly without either Pinkerton or Cio-Cio-San may find Gurney’s collection of leftover ironies a viable substitute— another proof that Western ways are truly inscrutable.

Take London, for instance, where everybody’s self-
centered, petty, violent, and obsessive, and no one speaks unless they’re simultaneously being spoken to. If you believe the picture of London on view in the kind of recent British plays favored by the New Group, like Some Voices, the general effect is of a truculent poured-concrete Dogpatch, and mass extermination the only suitable fate for the inhabitants. Joe Penhall’s edition of this glum world features two brothers, one morosely sane, one effusively dishonest and nuts. The latter, just out of the bin, gets involved with a pregnant Irish girl on the dole; they share a brief, grudging idyll before she goes back to the abusive boyfriend whose maltreatment she passively accepts, leading to the customary final combat. You wouldn’t want to spend eight seconds with any of these folk in reality, and Penhall gives no more than a few glimmers of verbal interest to the two hours­plus in which they inflict their company on each
other. I wish Penhall would write a play about English actors; next to him, I’d look like their biggest fan.

As usual at the New Group, the production (this time directed by Frank Pugliese) and acting have an excellence way beyond what the play deserves, the only quibble being that Pugliese has made everything a little less grotty and loathsome than it is in the script, for which, as far as I’m concerned, he deserves a vote of thanks. When ugliness is this familiar and this pointless, you don’t need to wallow in it. Whether we need it at all is a bigger question, which neither the New Group nor the disaster area that is English playwriting in general has yet answered to my satisfaction.