Jon Robin Baitz’s Chinese Friends is the wrong play at the right time, illustrating how even the best non-theatrical intentions can end up paving the road to audience hell. Baitz gets full marks for ambition and principle; he sees that something’s gone terribly wrong in our corporatized politics, and strives to sound the warning bell before it gets worse, setting his play in the impoverished America of a dystopian near-future. Sadly, he’s clueless about merging his vision with his dramaturgy: He lets a promising play of ideas morph into a clumsy thriller (with crater-size holes in its logic), and then degenerate into yet another round of that favorite Baitz sport, blaming Dad for what he did to Mom and the kid.
Dad, this time, is a former presidential adviser whose career has been smashed when his party tried to disengage the corporate stranglehold on American life; he now lives, shunned by all, on an island, warding off visitors with a bazooka—which inexplicably doesn’t restrict his access to gourmet items like fresh pâté. To him, fresh from a ’60s-style commune, comes his son, along with two ostensible fellow dropouts. The mysterious contents of a CD are their excuse for what proves to be more than a social call, and before you know it, Dad’s chained to a chair and under pressure to account for dirty tricks at which even corporations might flinch. But by this time, the high-aimed evening has long since sunk into recriminative blather. Peter Strauss, writhing, sneering, mournful, or blankly sullen, gives a magnetic performance in the lead. It would be interesting to see him, unchained, in some meaty piece of 19th-century heroics; he’ll catch no applause fishing with Baitz.