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A CurtainUp Review
by Les Gutman
Ong's own trajectory began in the Philippines, and landed him in New York in the mid-90's, by way of Los Angeles. Whatever his dreams might have been, he's done well for himself. At 29, he became the youngest-ever MacArthur "genius" grant recipient (and the first-ever Filipino grantee), and he's had a host of his plays produced, in New York and around the country. He just published his first novel, "Fixer Chaos," which has received glowing reviews. Watcher may not be autobiographical, but it reveals him as a trenchant yet sympathetic and nonjudgmental observer of the phenomena of which he writes.
Angelo (Orlando Pabotoy) is a 19 year old who moved from California to New York with his Asian mother, Loretta (Mia Katiabak). Their motivation was fairly straightforward: getting away from her husband, his father. Whatever romance Loretta might have been anticipating, her job in the box office of a Times Square movie theater probably was not it, especially not after the theater owner started showing "dirty" movies and she lost her job (because men who go to such places don't like buying tickets from mother figures).
Watcher traffics in the conjunctive conditions of fear and loneliness. Loretta deals by building a shell around herself -- perfectly symbolized by the glass of the box office. In the face of persistent courting by Cinquenta (Gilbert Cruz), a co-worker, also lonely, her resistance eventually subsides and she succumbs. (Cinquenta likens himself, aptly, to the tortoise in the "hare and tortoise" fable.)
Angelo shelters himself as well, aggressively holding on to mother's apron and belligerently objecting to Cinquenta's intrusions. But he too eventually peeks at a salve for his condition, exposed to some of the temptations of Times Square when he meets the handsome, engaging, street-smart Nestor (Anthony Ruivivar). Through Nestor, he discovers the dark appeals that fester beyond. "It's not about sex," Nestor tells him, "it's about loneliness." For Angelo, it's not about sex (which he continues to view as "disgusting") but overcoming fear. Ong is at his best in his electrifying illumination of this.
For all its sharpness, Ong's play can be disconcertingly dense. Themes flow through the story more as suggestions than as fully realized ideas. Characters pop in and out as unfulfilling tangents (a brief visit, producing the play's most comical moments, from some California relatives who implore Loretta to come "home", and a couple of scenes involving Nestor's elder (an aunt or perhaps grandmother, I don't think the play makes it clear) portrayed by the luminous Ching Valdes-Aran, before she gives up and returns to her native Puerto Rico). The play also seems dated, envisioning a sleazy Times Square that no longer really exists.
Well-known set designer Loy Arcenas does double duty here, directing as well as designing the show's simple, grimy set. His direction is excellent in all respects, especially so as he punctuates the play with sometimes lengthy periods of silence which often speak as evocatively as words. He is blessed with exceptional leads: Mia Katiabak, rendering a quiet, circumspect Loretta (albeit with occasional spikes), who has a mother's load in dealing with her son; Orlando Pabotoy, boyishly innocent yet revealing incipient manhood, malleable yet firmly rooted; Gilbert Cruz, whose humble but earnest Cinquenta is marvelous; and most of all, Anthony Ruivivar, whose sexy cockiness is understandably alluring and provides the play's essential energy. Supporting cast members are just as good.
The nice set design is enhanced by exemplary dramatic lighting from James Vermeulen. Fabian Obispo's sound effects and wonderful music are memorable as well.
Han Ong's first novel, Fixer Chaos