Long Wharf Stage II, New Haven
Long Wharf’s Stage II, as part of its “New American Voices” series, features an absorbing new piece. “BFE” is listed as a “dark comedy,” and appropriately so. The struggle of these characters for romance and human contact is often comic. But darkness is all around, like a nighttime desert. And in fact the play unfolds in a desert, a suburb of Phoenix, Arizona. Playwright Julia Cho had dubbed the area BFE, an obscene southwestern expression which means “the middle of nowhere.” The sterility one feels is caused not only by the local terrain, but by the suburb’s cookie-cutter shopping mall, which could be anywhere USA.
Nevertheless, all the characters in “BFE” are human, engrossing and sharply-etched, even the most evil ones. And the best of them, clumsy in reaching out for love, certainly evoke our sympathies. Hence, “endearing” is the term that best defines Cho’s new play.
Cho comfortably crosses racial, gender, age lines to create unconventional relationships and families. The heroine, Panny, is a bright 14-year-old, an Asian-American girl who lives with her uncle and mother. Her father has long since disappeared. Lefty, her uncle, is the rock of this family, assuming major responsibility for Panny. Panny’s mother, the flaky, self-absorbed Isabel, is incapable of responsible parenthood.
Each family member has his/her own experience with reaching out for love. Cho parallels the experiences beautifully, letting them rise to heights and fall away like themes in a musical composition.
The production itself is staged deftly by Gordon Edelstein, Long Wharf’s Artistic Director, who moves his large cast through their antics with a sure hand. Casting here (thanks to James Calleri and Alaine Alldaffer) has been impeccable. From Olivia Oguma as Panny, to her eight fellow players, excellent performances are the order of the day. Karen Kandel, as the black woman Lefty loves, gives a vulnerable, elegant portrayal, and James Saito, as Lefty, offers a quietly understated and most appealing portrayal. Kate Rigg manages to be both comic and touching as Panny’s mother, and James McMenamin, Scott Hudson, and Kel Martin all turn in strong performances. Only Sue Jean Kim falters in her role, infusing Panny’s naïve Korean pen pal with charm, but with annoyingly spastic movements. Oguma, who plays the lead and serves often as narrator, is, however, letter-perfect. It is she who sets the tone, the mood, and the high level of performance for this intriguing new play.
-- Irene Backalenick
Apr. 20, 2005