Stamford Theatre Works, Stamford
Steve Karp’s theater, Stamford Theater Works, is now offering a handsome, smoothly-staged production of A. R. Gurney’s “Far East,” and there is much to be said for the production, as well as the play itself, despite the play’s limitations.
Not surprising, given Gurney’s track record, this is a well-structured drama, with effective staccato-life scenes and an appropriate beginning, middle, and end. As Artistic Director Karp (who directs the play) explains in the program notes, the playwright has drawn on Japanese Kabuki drama for its structure. It is a format which Karp follows faithfully, keeping the set simple and flexible, with props easily changed during the proceedings. Karp’s design team (Richard Ellis—set, Aaron Meadow—lighting) must be credited with implementing the striking visual effects.
Despite its Japanese flavor, far from Middle America, “Far East” is familiar Gurney terrain. The playwright’s characters, here as elsewhere, are protected from life’s brutal realities, even while suffering from pressures, yearnings, and a stifling background. It is an upper-middle-class WASP world, despite its exotic milieu. None of these Americans will starve or struggle with basic needs. Gurney’s characters, whatever their particular problems, can always attend a dinner party or play a game of tennis when the going gets tough.
Yet Gurney’s skill as a playwright cannot be denied. The only element missing in this very earnest piece is Gurney’s usual wit and playfulness. This time around the play takes itself very seriously, as it grapples with racist and anti-gay themes and interjects lectures on historic events. We are told at length that the Korean War has ended and the Americans are gradually becoming involved in the Southeast Asian morass.
Possibly drawing on personal experience, Gurney depicts Sparky Watts, a young American naval officer, who has just arrived in Japan of the 1950s. Cocky and naïve, he is eager to “experience life” and in fact soon becomes enamored of a Japanese girl. But he is never far from his past. His commanding officer’s wife, Julia, who is closely connected with his well-heeled Milwaukee family, keeps a protective watch over him--supposedly. But her motives are questionable, as she deals with her own boredom and her attraction to Sparky. There are moments when “Sayonara” or “Madame Butterfly” or “From Here to Eternity,” with their attendant stereotypes, surface.
But Karp’s production makes the most of the material. A fine cast has been assembled, with Tony Roach as the youthful, likeable Sparky and Rita Rehn as the formidable Julia. Tristan Colton is particularly appealing as Sparky’s troubled gay bunkmate, and Chuck Caudill, Jr., as the commanding officer, gives a strong, believable performance. Caudill strikes the wrong note only in his overplayed drunken scene, which seems totally out of character. Vanessa Kai adds an Asian touch, serving as reader (and sometimes actor) off to one side.
In all, this “Far East,” whatever its limitations, is an elegant, fast-moving and always entertaining show.
-- Irene Backalenick
Sept. 17, 2006