One Fine Day
On an inauspicious morning at a Dutch library, a librarian makes an unexpected find in the overnight return box. The pantheon of book-borrowing sins holds no precedent for the box’s contents: a much mistreated Baedeker’s guidebook 123 years overdue. Even without compound interest, this tardiness merits a tidy fine, and in Underneath the Lintel (Soho Playhouse), playwright Glen Berger’s latest, our librarian hero determines to track down the miscreant. After many international adventures, he hires a theater for one night, to offer “an impressive presentation of lovely evidences” detailing his quest.
Berger’s monologue, subtitled The Mystery of the Abandoned Trousers, hardly slacks. Mailing a fine to the long-lived scofflaw in question proves difficult, as the borrower listed his name only as “A.” In an effort to run him to earth, the librarian, who has never left his native town of Hoofddorp, zips to China, Australia, Germany, and America. He eats sweets, greases palms, sees Les Miserables in three languages, and fritters away all his accumulated vacation days. He has the time of his life, or, perhaps, for the first time actually has a life.
T. Ryder Smith, hair powdered and face contorted with fastidiousness and fanaticism, plays the librarian with verve. He shuffles about the stage in a ragged coat, caressing the date stamper around his neck, proudly displaying his exhibits, and speaking in a bizarre accent—purportedly Dutch. Under Randy White’s direction, these mannerisms and characteristics never quite add up to a fully realized character, but this is never as bothersome as it ought to be.
You might say something similar of Berger’s play. His tendencies toward sentimentality and occasional cutesy cleverness mar the play, but never terribly. Troubles arise toward the end when the librarian, having identified his quarry, indulges in some metaphysical speculation and pointing up of metaphor. This heavy-handedness doesn’t intrude too much on the play’s good-naturedness. Yet you can’t help wishing Berger would lighten up and include more scenes like the one in which the librarian goes swing dancing in New York. Ryder’s beatific expression as he coerces his limbs into a jerky elegance is hilarious and affecting. These are the best scenes, when the librarian, so desperate for a thread of A.’s life, unexpectedly discovers the fabric of his own. —Alexis Soloski
Everyone Into the Royalty Pool!
Write what you know. Chay Yew and Lisa Peterson have gleefully violated this cardinal rule of Writing 101 with The Square (Ma-Yi Theater Company at the Public Theater). The creators asked 16 high-powered dramatists—Asian and not, from Ping Chong and David Henry Hwang to José Rivera and Kia Corthron—to pen a 10-minute playlet about the Asian American experience, set in a fictional Chinatown square. Yew and Peterson randomly assigned each artist a decade (1880s, 1920s, 1960s, present) and the number and ethnicity of the characters.
The intention is worthy, and all the usual subjects show up—immigrant pangs, discrimination, assimilation angst—along with clichés and sentimentality. Variations on the white master/Chinese houseboy team surface in Yew’s Scissors and Diana Son’s Handsome, where scissors also figure (though with a little more wit). These and other back-in-history pieces (Han Ong’s Untitled and Mac Wellman’s My Old Habit of Returning to Places) feel inauthentic, either too familiar or too far-out.
Other playwrights took the spirit of the project literally and wrote theater exercises: Maria Irene Fornes’s The Audition, about unemployed Asian actors trying to get work as Mexicans, and Robert O’Hara’s The Spot, where the characters role-play racial conflict. Both score as mildly amusing but unsatisfying.
In two of the best pieces, the authors write about what they know, but weave in an Asian character, ethnicity adding flavor. Craig Lucas’s Examination depicts a first encounter between two gay men, one a Chinese American doctor, the other a patient with an agenda. Sensitively acted by Ken Leung and Hamish Linklater, they project the welter of feelings in such meetings—vulnerability, attraction, longing. When the doctor’s immigrant parents suddenly enter jabbering in Cantonese, Lucas can scratch off part of his homework task, but the bit feels gratuitous.
Constance Congdon’s New takes us on a time-capsule tour of election eve, 1960. Two schoolgirl supporters of Nixon—one Japanese American and tipsy (Jennifer Ikeda), one WASP-y and sober (Fiona Gallagher)—comfort each other in the wee hours. It’s a nifty comedy of manners, as these girls in their colored wool suits and flip hairdos bond over politics—Catholics in the White House, the Japanese internment camps—while teasing their hair and spraying everything in sight. Congdon also offers a glimpse into the later ’60s with an ending that takes an ironic bite out of their—and our own former—innocence.
Peterson directs all the pieces with energy and inventive flourishes, aided by the design talents of Rachel Hauck, Christianne Myers, James Vermeulen, and Fabian Obispo. The design especially stars in Jessica Hagedorn’s Silent Movie, which takes a clever, film-noir look at 1920s Chinatown, a den of opium and iniquity. In one nifty bit, an Irish mistress and her maid make decadent love while a period movie is projected onto the red satin sheet covering them.
Congdon, Lucas, and Hagedorn give us these beguiling moments in an otherwise long and often tedious evening. But when you literally draw subjects from a hat, as The Square‘s playwrights did, ya gotta expect more losers than winners. —Francine Russo