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A CurtainUp Review
Suh recognizes that a birthday cake can also be a compelling force for reuniting a family, and he uses the occasion of a father's hwangap— in Korean culture, the completion of the zodiac cycle and rebirth that occurs on one's sixtieth birthday— to examine the splintered lives of a Korean family in surburban West Texas. But what should be the occasion for outright celebration is instead riddled with suspicion and dread, for this father, Min Suk Chun (James Saito) has spent quite a few of his sixty years far away from his family.
Years before, after losing his job as an engineer, he retreated to Korea, leaving his wife and three young children to fend for themselves in America. Although they're a resilient bunch, the return of the family patriarch threatens to crack through the hairline fractures in their lives. The mother, Mary (Mia Katigbak), has supported her children and immersed herself in her community, collecting friends and taking flamenco classes. Eldest son David (Hoon Lee) has a successful, if suffocating, career as an investment banker in New York. Daughter Esther (Michi Barall) is a perpetual student (and divorcee) searching for direction. Youngest son Ralph (Peter Kim) still lives in his mother's basement, where he plays guitar, writes poetry, and struggles to control his "nervous situation" —bouts of moodiness marked by fits of temper and angry outbursts.
Ralph, it seems, is the only one who is truly excited about his father's return. As the youngest child, he has the most meager memories of his father, but he has a boundless enthusiasm for birthdays, paging through a book to make sure his siblings and mother are aware of the (often peripheral) celebrities who share their own birthdays. The others are reluctant, and rightfully so. The question that resounds through American Hwangap is a big, furious "why?" Why has Min Suk returned? And why did he leave in the first place?
Suh reminds us that we often have to live into questions before answers begin to surface, and his convincing, compelling writing exposes these familial relationships with grace, poignancy, and bursts of humor. Under the deft direction of Trip Cullman, this compact 90-minute production flies by, offering a vivid, intimate portrait of a family attempting to patch itself together.
It helps that this stellar cast feels like a real family, with dynamic interactions that smack of real-life sibling sparring and parent-child struggling. Katigbak delivers a wonderfully wry, no-nonsense portrait of Mary, a steadfast woman with an innate understanding of her children's needs, as well as her own. She reminds her stubborn daughter of the need to "face the thing that made you. To make it see you. "
Saito is alternately exasperating and sympathetic as Min Suk, and his performance is particularly touching as he works to revive his relationships with his children and his ex-wife. By way of explanation, he tells his daughter about the "planned obsolescence" that has plagued his career and life:
"My American life had planned obsolescence. Company gets what it need from me, technology changes, young kids know new things, old guys go by the side, fall off, die or whatever, just die, I became obsolete. "
In turn, he has made himself obsolete in his own family, and his attempts to make himself important again are met with varied responses. As the wounded, loquacious Esther, Michi Barall presents a vivid tangle of emotions; she clearly wants her father to understand her, but parries away his blunt questions about her personal life: "You have some boyfriend? " he wonders, and receives a withering reply.
While she verbally jousts with her father in person, her brother David maintains a safe distance on the phone, and Hoon Lee, armed with a sharp suit and a stoic, steady gaze, delivers an arresting performance with the headset of a phone hooked over one ear. His detached interaction with his father, flitting across space and many states, is raw and riveting; these cagey attempts by two grown men to find each other again illuminate the limitations of human connection, even (and especially) with the people who are ostensibly the closest to us.
As the goofy Ralph, Peter Kim has a winning, buoyant energy that, more than anything else, shines hope on the future of this family. A set of monologues pop up throughout the script, in which the family members offer toasts at the official hwangap celebration, and the show opens with Ralph's tribute to his father: "I don't know you very well. But I mean I like you and stuff, " he offers. And this affection, unsolicited and unearned, Suh suggests, is the ineffable thing that ultimately tethers us together.
Try onlineseats.com for great seats to
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Playbill 2007-08 Yearbook
Leonard Maltin's 2008 Movie Guide