Theater

Ian Bruce and Lloyd Suh Chew on the Dinner-Party in Groundswell and American Hwangap

by

From Seneca to Shakespeare to the current Broadway season, our
theater loves to throw a dinner party. However varied the menu, however
diverse the guest list, stage banquets almost invariably include an
appetizer of pleasantries, an entrée of revelation, and
recrimination for dessert. Delicious, no? If the start of the meal
resembles a Norman Rockwell portrait of full plates and smiling faces,
the stage will owe more to Francis Bacon by the time the finger bowls
arrive.

Two new works—Ian Bruce’s Groundswell, a South African
crime drama, and American Hwangap, Lloyd Suh’s Korean-American
family play—center on dinner parties. While Bruce adheres to the
form, Suh adjusts it—shirking concentrated conflict and all but
avoiding the meal itself. Yet both plays depict the dining table as a
perilous place. Statisticians may cite the bathroom and kitchen as the
most dangerous rooms in the home, but theater will tell you it’s the
dining room every time.

Bruce’s Groundswell, produced by the New Group, checks into
Garnet Lodge, a ramshackle guesthouse on South Africa’s West Coast. The
owners have departed for the winter, leaving the cottage in the care of
Thami (Souléymane Sy Savané), the black gardener. Thami
has aspirations beyond hoeing and raking, which are fed by Johan (David
Lansbury), a white man who works as a diver for a diamond concern,
searching the sea floor for precious stones, and who is also the
lodge’s handyman. Johan insists that he and Thami can acquire a diamond
concession of their own, but he lacks the ready cash and hopes to
convince the lodge’s sole guest, a wealthy-seeming businessman named
Smith (Larry Bryggman), to invest in this scheme. To that end, Johan
has Thami cook an excellent supper and provide copious wine. Should the
culinary stratagem fail, Johan makes his own separate
arrangements—he conceals a sizeable knife in a drawer near the
table.

Before Thami agrees to let his friend come to dinner, he makes Johan
promise to abstain from alcohol and bad behavior. “No stories about
peeing in your wetsuit,” he instructs him. “No showing off how loud you
can fart, or . . . or any of that. No striptease and definitely no
lectures about your rubbish politics.” Of course, Johan commits all
these etiquette gaffes—and worse ones, too. Once the subject of
Apartheid is raised, the dinner devolves into an unseemly session of
the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Then it turns violent.
Disturbed by Johan’s conduct, yet unwilling to abandon his dreams of
private enterprise, Thami must decide whether to rescue Smith or
condemn him.

If Bruce’s script relies on a familiar form, he manages to inject
excellent convolutions into its content and characters. The play’s
politics aren’t easy to unpack and—on the page, at
least—one doesn’t know whether to embrace or detest the three men
at its center. Johan, a former police officer, has committed terrible
injustices against blacks, yet he seems to genuinely esteem Thami. Lest
Thami seem altogether too noble, Bruce shows him to be amenable to
black-market dealings and willing to exploit his family’s suffering to
shame Smith into investing. At first, Smith may seem like a typical fat
cat, a man who has benefited from racial inequity. Forced to take early
retirement, he displays a cynicism toward the new South Africa; he
defines affirmative action as “giving the advantages earned by one man
to another man.” Yet when threatened by Johan, he reveals himself as a
proponent of liberal politics who supported anti-Apartheid charities
and sent his daughter to an integrated school.

Of course, director Scott Elliott reduces many of these
complexities. In previous plays, Elliott has encouraged his actors
toward overly broad characterization, and Groundswell proves no
exception. Lansbury plays Johan as a psychopath from the first,
truncating his character’s arc. Meanwhile, Sy
Savané—though making a compelling stage debut—endows
Thami with so much innate decency that it trumps any of the character’s
bad actions. Only Bryggman manages to dine at Elliott’s table and
remain a thrilling cipher, portraying a man both aggrieving and
aggrieved, at once genial and despicable.

That same divided nature could also describe Min Suk Chun (James
Saito), the patriarch in Suh’s American Hwangap, a Play
Company/Ma-Yi co-production. Min Suk journeys across the world to
arrive for dinner at eight. Fifteen years earlier—laid off from
his engineering job and disenchanted with his adopted country—he
had decamped from a Texas suburb back to Korea. But on the eve of his
60th birthday, he returns to celebrate Hwangap, a banquet held to honor
an individual’s completion of the 60-year zodiac cycle.

Though Suh doesn’t stage much of the banquet itself, he lavishes
attention on its preparations. Min Suk’s wife, Mary (Mia Katigbak), and
daughter, Esther (Michi Barall), confer about dumplings. Son Ralph
(Peter Kim) enthuses over “dduk-gook and some gahl-bee
and shucks bean sprouts. During these scenes, Suh flashes forward to
brief moments during the dinner, when Mary, Esther, and Ralph each
offer a ceremonial toast to Min Suk. Suh also scripts the banquet’s
aftermath, which finds Min Suk, drunk and trouserless, wedged in a
backyard tree.

The play takes an unusually tender-hearted attitude toward Min Suk,
never really facing him with the emotional and financial depredations
his departure wrought upon his family. If Suh is reluctant to write
those scenes, he overwrites others. His dialogue is effective, but the
longer speeches tend toward the artificial and indulgent, as when the
troubled Ralph describes his mental state as “teetering toward a very
nearby precipice beneath which is untold personal misery and
psychological disaster.” Still, director Trip Cullman and his excellent
cast compensate for some of the script’s deficiencies. Cullman stages
the play briskly and with a minimum of fuss, hurrying the actors on to
the next scene, while encouraging succinct displays of nuance and
emotive force.

Suh’s refusal to write the central dinner scene is formally
interesting, but also somewhat faint-hearted. The play seems to require
that central confrontation, but Suh dodges it. That’s a pity. Having
discussed the dumplings, the dduk-gook, and the frosted cake,
Suh shouldn’t let them go untasted. Min Suk would seem to agree: After
the fete, he peers from his maple tree perch at his unhappy family and
muses, “Good party.”

Most Popular