In one way, at least, comedian Masayasu Nakanishi puts on a slick show. After only a few minutes beneath the stage lights, sweat streams down his face, dripping onto his polo shirt, chinos, and the floor below. If success, as those motivational posters in high school locker rooms have it, is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration, Masayasu should have it made. Except, in his autobiographical one-man show Japa-Rica, that 1 percent is sorely wanting and its lack leaves Nakanishi high if not exactly dry.
Japa-Rica races across the well-trod ground of the immigrant experience. Nakanishi arrives in Manhattan at age 21 with no knowledge of English and a debilitating shrimp allergy (there goes the sushi-chef day job). Duffel bag slung over his shoulder, the fresh-faced foreigner stops, breathes, sighs, uplifts his face, raises his arms, and utters with beatific smile, “New York City, the most wonderful city in the world . . . smells bad.” Does this obviousness of observation and slew of gestures characterize the rest of the performance? Is wasabi spicy?
Nakanishi and director-cowriter Robert Baumgardner structure the piece as an eight-segment series of lessons on U.S. language and culture. Having acquired the American moniker “Bobby” (Nakanishi likes it because of “Bobby De Niro”), our hero negotiates the hurdles of bad words, Yankee girls, and citizenship nightmares. Though Nakanishi eventually wins a green card, he seems content stereotyping himself as the perpetual Japanese tourist—overeager, overearnest, confused, and gauche. Maybe the Actor’s Studio is to blame. That august institution sponsored Nakanishi’s green card and made him a member. Unfortunately the membership shows as he makes the Method-trained mistake of confusing tears and giggles and screeches with acting. Nakanishi’s emotions are so copious and raw it’s like a deluxe sashimi special.
The conclusion proves particularly indulgent. Bobby goes on a casting call and is told he isn’t Japanese enough. He protests and enacts a welter of Asian tropes from sumo wrestler to samurai warrior (in a rare well-written moment, he utters a strangled cry of “Mishima!” while pretending to commit hara-kiri). Then, informed by the casting agents that they have seen “the real him,” he again protests and begs to perform a monologue that will show the real real him. He then speaks Japa-Rica‘s opening lines. Finally, the show shows no more of Nakanishi than his ability to manipulate stereotypes and a manic performance style for cheap laffs. This becomes clear when, having shuffled off the autobiographical alter ego, Nakanishi returns to the stage to take his bows. In this moment, stripped of the preening and shrieking and mispronouncing, Nakanishi has a posture of dignity and intelligence his play belies.
Performance artist George Emilio Sanchez begins his play with a series of bows, but there’s little dignified or intelligent about them. He trots onto the stage, face glowing, hair flying, and a red cape adorned with roses unfurling behind him. A frivolous opener to be sure, but also a delightful and theatrical one—more than can be said for most of the ensuing show.
Commissioned before September 11, Rosa had originally focused on the diaries of Sanchez’s sex-addled Ecuadorian grandmother. But in the afterburn of the WTC attacks, Sanchez shifted his gaze from tits to terror with unfortunate results. The play proper begins with a trilingual introduction performed, as the program indicates, by Sanchez’s alter ego (oh dear, not another alter ego), El Gran Chief Cholo. (As my foreign language skills are limited to menu items, much of this missed me, except for a moment when I’m sure he mentions “chorizo.”) Eyes bulging, Sanchez lays into the deficit, Dow Jones, and other Republican bugbears. Then, casting aside the Chief Cholo act, he describes how he saw the towers fall, how he rushed to volunteer, how his sensibilities and politics were challenged.
While Sanchez’s sincerity and veracity are not in doubt, the wisdom of staging them is. Such a performance may have been cathartic in September or October, but a distance of five months demands more contextualization and introspection than he can offer. Though he makes occasional stabs at poetic discourse—employing repetition, oblique language, fulsome description—it doesn’t undo the stale narrative. The freshest bit comes toward the play’s end when Sanchez devotes 10 minutes (having nothing to do with what went before or came after) to the titular Rosa and her “romps through the land of sheer wantonness.” The sweetness and humor of this section bodes well for a future work, but this time around, instead of taking all those fanciful bows, Sanchez should have taken a powder.