The Cash Stash Hash

Take the money and run. The deceptively simple plot stratagem of Masha No Home (Ensemble Studio Theatre) sets up a series of complex dilemmas in this engaging family drama from promising playwright Lloyd Suh.

The money, $30,000 in wads of cash, was a kae, a kind of self-help community bank for Korean immigrants. Masha’s mother, who has just died, was its keeper. When the 17-year-old Masha, now the ward of her older brother Whitman, discovers he’s using the trove to finance the half-finished house they and his new Korean wife Annabell are living in, she recoils. The money becomes a kind of hot potato—and test of character—as it passes through the hands of everyone in the play, including Masha’s Chinese boyfriend Felix and Felix’s father.

Whitman, a lawyer, argues that his mother’s intent was to help them build a new family after her death and to help them pay her medical debts. Masha challenges the value of a house or family built on such a “foundation.” Annabell, more instinctively, feels the money is a curse and wants to be rid of it. For Felix, a failed med student, it represents a chance to be somebody; for Felix’s widowed father, the cash repays the pain and disappointment inflicted by his son. For all of them, the kae poses the question: What is owed—and to whom?

Suh has created passionate, multifaceted people, who, fortunately, break out of a contrived story rigidly based on a metaphor. The author has also endowed them lavishly with language—languages, actually. From Annabell’s comically accented English that rises to eloquence, to Felix’s seduction riffs that ripple with Chinese American cultural icons, the writer wittily explores the uses and effects of words.

In a briskly paced staging that blends visceral physicality with dexterous verbal play, director Nela Wagman wins rich performances from her smoothly fused ensemble. As Masha, Samantha Quan, burdened with overliterary lines, nonetheless projects the inchoate longing and confusion of an orphaned adolescent. Tim Kang’s Whitman reveals the desperation behind the overcontrolled lawyer’s drive. As Felix, Eddie Shin shows the appealing glib seducer whipped into painful uncertainty by his scornful father; James Saito, in the father’s role, communicates a soul-eating desolation. Strongest, in the role of the immigrant wife that could be so easily caricatured, Cindy Cheung invests Annabell with cagey wisdom, grit, and compassion. In one hysterical episode, understatedly drunk, swearing in a stream of garbled English-Korean, Cheung beautifully balances humor and heartbreak. It becomes Suh’s most perfect scene because it’s least force-fitted into a literary conceit. And it shows what this playwright can do at his best, and what, one hopes, he will do a lot more of in plays to come. —Francine Russo

Boil, Boil, Oil and Trouble

For a while now, the theater has needed a play about middle-class African Americans in a cultural clash with Africa and Africans. It would contain some farcical elements, because dramatic maiden voyages to the motherland often involve many unpleasant surprises. It might also compare and contrast colonialism with racism; Pan-Africanism with black nationalism; and forms of government with their people. Lynn Nottage’s 1998 play Mud, River, Stone, about a pair of tourists who get stuck in a remote African hotel during a coup, came close to being that play. Now celebrated actor-playwright Ossie Davis has taken a valiant stab, but A Last Dance for Sybil falls even shorter of the mark (New Federal Theater at St. Clement’s Church).

When writing on this subject, it’s difficult to resist opening up the Pandora’s box of political rhetoric at the issue’s heart. Davis rips the latch right off, and his desire to communicate undiluted statistics often makes his characters speak like they’re reading to you from The New York Times. His arguments are all well reasoned, but they don’t leave much time for the characters to breathe.

The central figure, Sybil BenCompson, perhaps named for the famous multiple-personality sufferer, is a high-level executive at Petrotech Refineries. She and her boss, Anson Cryder, arrive in the fictional Monyoghese Republic just as her company’s drilling rights in the area are about to expire. Rather unsubtly, the Cryder family, Petrotech’s owners, made their fortune in the slave trade. While working for Anson, who’s next in line for CEO, Sybil functions as caretaker, diplomat, and servant. Their relationship pointedly echoes Condoleezza Rice’s mammyish devotion to Dubya.

But the most urgent part of Sybil’s job is to placate the aging leader of the country, “Papa Oba” Obatutsi, into signing an agreement to extend Petrotech’s drilling rights. Sybil’s job is a labor of love as well as commerce; she and Anson have sporadic sexual tension throughout the play. The kindest thing I can say about the venerable Ruby Dee’s performance as Sybil is that she is miscast. Our heroine needs to be a sharp, ambitious seductress. Dee flutters around the role like someone who’s pretty sure she left the oven on at home. More focused, and with a more interesting character to play, Teagle F. Bougere walks away with the show as Mlolu, Papa Oba’s mischievous, sonnet-wielding son. Mlolu deliberately stalls the negotiations while his father is ill, and introduces an oddball plan for economic unity between Africans and their long-lost American brothers. But Davis even bogs down Mlolu’s humanity by having him teach us lessons in self-determination. An interesting drama may lie under all the speechifying. But like Monyoghese oil, it’s still unrefined. —James Hannaham