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A CurtainUp BerkshiresReview

Far East

The first question that probably comes to your mind vis-à-vis A.R. Gurney's newest play is likely to be: Is it newsworthy in that it lifts the playwright above his status as America's premier stage interpreter of upper middle class WASP life? I'll answer that rhetorical question with three of my own:
  1. If you can take a bright young man out of Milwaukee for a naval tour of duty in Japan, can you also excise the values brewed into him as a member of family whose brewery paid for his Ivy League education?

    Will the addition of such relevant issues as gays in the armed services, give a '90s sensibility to a story that deliberately links itself to several favorite '50s movies?

    Can "star playwright" provenance, strong production values and acting captivate audiences into ignoring the play's predictability and leaving them satisfied that they've seen an interesting new play instead of a been-there, seen that yawner?

The question about Sparky Watt's transcendence of his American Midwestern value system begs a fence straddling answer: temporarily yes -- but in the long run, no. Sparky (Scott Wolf) is a charming straight-shooter. He's eager to experience life beyond his own milieu but sufficiently grounded in conventional ambition to recognize that this will look good on his application to the Harvard business school. He is more an experience gatherer, than a young man experiencing deep-seated change (as his country is about to experience deep-seated changes). He, as well as his three on-stage colleagues, (four if you count the narrator-reader), are Gurney- proofed for a high likability quotient. And so, for all the geographic distance from the playwright's usual locales, Far East is painted in a familiar Gurney palette: bland and pleasant.

As to whether the gays-in-the-armed services secondary story gives this '50s story a '90s relevancy, I'm afraid the golden oldie movie tie-in wins the day. The playwright has already taken a stab at this sort of timeliness by introducing a Gurney Gay into a cast of Gurney WASPS (see Les Gutman's review of Labor Day. Now we have another Gay man who is sympathetically portrayed by Paul Fitzgerald. But for all the resonance of the dialogue and the touch of John Le Carre intrigue, the Gay connection does little to help Far East separate itself from Love Is a Many Splendored Thing and From Here to Eternity (used as leitmotif verbal and musical references). Neither do the touches of Ugly Americanism add anything new enough to sharpen the picture of a social order caught between the end of one war and on the brink of another.

That brings us to the question of whether craftsmanship on the part of author, actors and director can carry the day for this world premiere. Since Mr. Gurney can never be accused of not knowing how to construct a play and his dialogue is often affecting and tinged with gently sardonic humor and this so, propped up by the smart direction and acting, Far East has enough going for it to keep boredom at bay. Will it seed discussion and thought that will make it stick to the mind long after the shoji screens have slid shut for the last time? No.

Scott Wolf, who engaged our sympathy as a young hoodlum from the slums in WTF's summer '97 revival of Dead End, is equally winning as a young man from the right side of the tracks. He brings a just right brash charm to the young navy officer who comes to his tour of duty with a clear sense of entitlement to the best life has to offer but ends up feeling committed to both the Navy and a Japanese girl. His deepening relationship with his superior officer, (Bill Smitrovich), makes for some of the play's best scenes. On the other hand, his love for the always off-stage Japanese girl friend is never anything more than a device to create conflict. This is less attributable to the actor, than the part he's been dealt. Bill Smitrovich's Captain Anderson, also an on target performance, is the most rounded character. He shows the clear sense of a father finding a bit of his dead son , (a Korean war casualty), in Sparky as well as man whose overriding passion for flying, precludes more satisfactory relationships.

Linda Emond who has proved herself as an actress of great versatility -- (in Nine Armenians, as John Adams' wife in the musical 1776 and most recently as a Hollywood wife in The Dying Gaul) -- is wonderful, or at least as wonderful her character permits her to be. The dancing scene with Sparky lifts their interaction well above similar counterparts in old B-movies. Ms. Emond even manages to look good in the three gosh-awful dresses that seem cut from the same '50s Simplicity pattern. Her scenes with her husband and Sparky's commanding officer are equally strong on authentic emotion. However, as good as she is, Ms. Emond can't put flesh on a character written to double as symbols.

As Sparky's romance with the Japanese waitress is a device, so Julia's role is the "hook" for introducing historic significance into this precursor to inter-racial marriages and changing images of Asian women as Geishas. As the Japan-based emissary from WASP-dom (she went to Smith with Sparky's aunt) and the Voice of America (for which she used to work), she must play the symbolic meddler. This symbolic role depletes the flesh and blood character of the woman torn between jealousy (of her husband's relationship with a Fillipino woman) and sexual yearning (for Sparky).

If only she could have slipped out of her crinolines for a juicy From Here to Eternity scene, instead of being forced to retreat into a significant silences. While the second act is dramatically superior to the first, it is here that Ms. Emond and her fellow actors are hobbled by the demand made upon them to become the embodiments social ferment in the making.

To add to the plus side of the play's ledger, Gurney who's no stranger to smart, effective gimmicks -- (For example: . Later Life, a four actor play peopled with a cast of twelve by virtue of having two of the actors play ten deliciously zany characters) -- here introduces some dramatic touches that work very well. A fifth actor (Tohoru Masamune) is well used as a reader who at times assumes the persona of unseen characters. Whether the idea of the playwright or the director, the percussionist (Pun Boonyarata-Pun) and a mute ensemble of on-stage assistants add atmosphere and movement to Michael Brown's evocative set, beautifully lit by Rui Rita.

Undoubtedly, Far East will travel, (hopefully, with some further editing), beyond this northeastern premiere since the Gurney by-line is an audience drawing card. To wit, the Williamstown Theatre Festival's limited run was sold out before it opened last Thursday.

Two footnotes for trivial pursuit players: 1. Captain Anderson's reference to "The whole nine yards" unlike the movie references predates the actual use of that term by a decade. The phrase, which originated in the building trade, did not come into general usage until the 1960s. 2. Aas the recent Labor Day was an expansion of a previous success, The Cocktail Hour, so Far East is an expansion of one of the letters in the super-popular two-hander, Love Letters

Labor Day
Dead End
Nine Armenians
Labor Day

By A.R. Gurney
Directed by Dan Sullivan
Starring: Linda Emond, Paul Fitzgerald, Tohoru Masamune, Bill Smitrovich and Scott Wolf
With Pun Boonyarata-Pun (percussionist) and David Mason, Jose Sanchez, Lisa Schmon, Olevia White as stage assistants
Sets: Michael Brown
Costumes: Danielle Castronovo
Lights: Rui Rita
Sound: Jerry M. Yager
Nikos Stage, Williamstown Theatre Festival
1000 Main Street, Williamstown, MA (413/597-3400)
web address
Performances 7/15/98-7/26/98; 7/02/98
opening 7/16/98
Reviewed 7/18/98 by Elyse Sommer

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