36 Views is a frustrating play—frustrating because, though it’s chock-full of charm, intelligence, and compassion, it loses its audience by not being believable. And if there’s a type of play that needs believability, it’s the kind in which the author tells you everything in the world is a scam. If you can’t trust her to tell it like it is, you’re in trouble. And even Mark Wing-Davey’s spectacularly ingenious, visually elegant production can’t hide the trouble that rattles Naomi Iizuka’s play, except in its best moments, from start to finish.
A dealer, a scholar, the scholar’s mentor, the dealer’s assistant, and a punkoid firebrand of a young artist, all with an interest in some aspect of ancient Japanese art, get involved in the attempt to unearth and purchase an alleged 11th-century “pillow book,” one of those piles of manuscript leaves on which ladies of the Heian court recorded everything from their intimate thoughts and the course of their love affairs to impressions of the weather and lists of things they found beautiful. At the same time, the dealer is involved in a seemingly more dubious transaction involving a mysterious woman who wants a valuable “national treasure” shipped out of an Asian country illegally. When the two transactions cross paths by coincidence, the consequences alter the life of everyone involved, unhappily for the most part. Brash, tender, and metaphysical by turns, the writing is pervaded with the sense of melancholy beauty that the Japanese call mono no aware—the knowledge that all things change. (A rough Western equivalent would be Lucretius’s “sunt lacrimae rerum.”)
The tears that are in Iizuka’s things, however, didn’t arise there organically. My ears twitched early on, when the art dealer, assertively philistine about literature, showed off museum-curator expertise in ancient Asian art, and then claimed never to have read The Tale of Genji. This would be analogous to an expert in Broadway choreography claiming never to have heard a note of Rodgers, Berlin, or Cole Porter, since Japanese painters spent the four or five centuries after Lady Murasaki’s death depicting scenes from her great novel on screens and wall hangings. If you let this dubiety pass—Iizuka has plot reasons for making her art dealer a man of no letters—you’re soon forced to swallow a bigger one: superstar scholars who publicize the discovery of a major document without ever having seen it or learned anything verifiable about its provenance. (Trevor-Roper, who fell for the fake Hitler diary, at least looked at it first.) The document in 36 Views eventually turns out not to be a fake—but I tell you this only to warn you that Iizuka has one or two good tricks tucked up her kimono sleeve along with the dubieties. She can effectively evoke a sampan; now I wish she would get rid of the junk. (NB: I stole that joke from a very old review of John Simon’s. No scams in this column.)
One of Iizuka’s problems comes with her territory: Since the characters deal with intellectual and historical material that’s remote from American general knowledge, her dialogue has to bend and stretch like the women in erotic ukiyo prints to accommodate all the exposition. Occasionally the people have to spout data like art history textbooks, or laboriously explain to each other matters that would be common knowledge among them. A millionaire dealer in Asian art might put up with many things for the sake of love, but having a fresh-faced doctoral candidate explain to him that at the Heian court men wrote in Chinese and women in Japanese, as if it were big news, is probably not one of them. It’s easy to sympathize with this aspect of Iizuka’s struggle: The information is necessary and underneath it she has a potentially fascinating story to tell. But it’s also easy to wish she had found a more convincing solution to the dilemma, because the effect of her choice is to push the audience away from the story and the characters, to attenuate their interest instead of enhancing it.
And 36 Views offers, as I implied above, a great deal to be interested in. Iizuka catches, and has intriguing observations about, such things as the strange ways in which humans respond to love, the strange and shifting values we place on art, the strange relation both have to politics, nationality, ethnicity, and other aspects of cultural conditioning. Zeami, master playwright of the Noh drama, said that to be great, a play must contain some degree of yugen “mystery.” Though too badly flawed to be called great, 36 Views makes contact more than once with the mystery Zeami meant: the sense of life as an inexplicable phenomenon. The center of gravity it reaches at those moments dignifies its intrigue plot—a mystery of a more conventional sort—and even makes its missteps and its passages of dataspeak worth sitting through.
Nor is there any problem sitting through Wing-Davey’s production, far and away the best thing he’s done since Mad Forest. As the house lights went down, I saw his name on the program and shuddered; I’ve come to associate him with a pointless theater of clutter, industrial noise, and overbuilt gadgetry. Not any more. Every moment in 36 Views is precise, graceful, focused on the action, anchored in feeling and in meaning. Wing-Davey still feels—my one minor complaint—that overamplified blasts of third-rate rap make a play more contemporary. No, Mark, they just make it sound noisy and stupid, especially when they’re irrelevant. But those effusions are few here, and everything else is wonderful: the shoji screens that constantly slide the stage into new perspectives; the sudden intrusions of Kabuki (based on the form’s transformation scenes) that give warnings of character shifts to come; the carefully modulated blizzard of projections, often used for eye-fooling effects; the sneaky interplay of humans, objects, images, and shadows. Much of this is called for in Iizuka’s script, but calling for something and getting it are two different things, as every playwright knows. Wing-Davey’s visual flashiness here is for once not an imposition but a fulfillment.
And inside it, he hasn’t neglected his actors. I have a small cavil about Elaine Tse, whose spiky portrait of the radical artist seems presealed to ward off all empathy, but even this choice turns out to have justifications in the text. Stephen Lang and Liana Pai, as dealer and scholar, catch both the defensive gloss and the perplexed inner pain in their interaction; Richard Clarke is endearingly avuncular as Pai’s mentor; and there’s notable work by two young tragicomedians, Rebecca Wisocky and Ebon Moss-Bachrach. Mop-haired Moss-Bachrach, with his spidery arms, pointy features, and fluctuating voice, makes the dealer’s assistant an Edward Gorey figure come to life. Wisocky, already a familiar figure downtown, gains in assurance and style every time I see her; her elegant height, long jaw, and ability to shift her features from magazine-cover beauty to muppet cartoonishness make her a happy merger of Zora Rasmussen and Sigourney Weaver.
While I’m dropping the names of actresses, let me drop three more: Lisa Emery, Claudia Shear, and Jessica Stone. Now I’d like to suggest that these three delightful artists drop a lame, sometimes thinly funny object called The Smell of the Kill—they could drop it hard on the floor, its dumbness is unbreakable. Then they should find three male actors equal to them in quality, and start a repertory company. There have to be 200,000 plays six people could put on that are better than The Smell of the Kill. Three women who’ve been living in a Chicago suburb, apparently not far from Ira Levin’s Stepford, get variously maltreated by their offstage husbands, get the chance to let the husbands die, and do so. The teensy bit of conflict that intervenes turns out to be faked; its only value is that it briefly gives us the droll sight of monologist Shear with a kitchen sponge tied over her mouth. Other than that, the play is an innocuous fantasy that will probably exert a mild appeal on women who have occasionally thought about killing their spouses. It would work especially well at a dinner theater located near a first-class mall: You need to have been on a major shopping spree to relish the script’s barrage of brand names, and with a play this short (83 minutes) and this trivial, you should at least get a three-course meal, even at prices way lower than Broadway’s current scale. Christopher Ashley’s direction keeps the action bright toned and speedy without undue falsification, and the three performers, playing with as much conviction as if they were three Medeas, never put a foot wrong. But how many places can you put your foot in a one-step?