In a suburban development in some Southwestern Nowheresville, an Asian American 14-year-old struggles to cope with all the things teenage girls have to cope with nowadays: dysfunctional home life, confusion about boys, lack of any social activity except being a mall rat, lack of any sense of connection to the larger world. And, of course, being Asian, which means not being a magazine cover celebrity prototype blonde chick. Oh, and serial killers, since there’s one loose in the area, and her schoolmates who do resemble magazine cover blonde chicks keep mysteriously disappearing.
This is the ambience—and much of the substance—of Julia Cho’s BFE, a youthful play that has the flaws, along with some of the sparkling virtues, of young writers. Juggling as many topics and characters as she can cram into her story, Cho labors to give them each both a full development and a distinctive twist. Often she succeeds, but too often she falls back on labored turns and all too familiar surprises. The play’s freshness has patches of predictability, and its jumble of tones barely holds together. There’s also a certain oddity in her constantly playing the unhappy-Asian card in an era when the celebrity talk is crammed with Asians and Asian Americans who’ve become admired public figures. Is ours the era of Amy Tan, Margaret Cho, and Lucy Liu, or isn’t it?
Still, Cho’s writing has plenty of spark and individuality, along with a willingness—not always visible in young writers—to depict the older generation as being just as interesting and complex as the adolescent heroine and her peers. Gordon Edelstein’s production sometimes makes Cho’s script seem too solemnly earnest for such an openly playful play, but he’s assembled an intriguing assemblage of new and familiar faces for his cast, with Olivia Oguma fetchingly spunky as the heroine; James Saito touching as her hapless uncle-guardian; James McMenamin, Kel Martin, and Jeremy Hollingworth giving vivid depictions of other local teens; and Karen Kandel coating the role of a lonely salesclerk with a preposterous amount of magazine cover glamour.