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An Earthen Vessel Cracks Under Fire

Theater Review

January 15, 1999|F. KATHLEEN FOLEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Yohen. In traditional Japanese pottery-making, it describes a serendipitous accident, a fluke in the firing process that results in a happy imperfection. Although it may be warped or discolored, such a pot is prized among collectors as something distinct and oddly beautiful.

The trick is ascertaining which pots are "yohen"--and which are mistakes destined for the discard pile.

As in most art, it's a question of perception. In "Yohen," at East West Players, playwright Philip Kan Gotanda applies the same aesthetic principle to marriage. When, after all, is a marriage beautifully imperfect and when is it merely defunct? Yet despite moments of humor and lyrical power, Gotanda's drama fails to adequately address the philosophical dilemma it poses. Choppy and poorly structured, the play is not, one fears, truly "yohen."

Set in Gardena, Calif., in 1986, the action revolves around the troubled relationship between Sumi, sprightly Nobu McCarthy, and James, personified with towering effectiveness by Danny Glover. Recently retired from the Army, James met the Japanese-born Sumi when he was overseas, married her and brought her back to live in the States. In addition to grappling with innate cultural differences, this interracial couple has confronted daunting prejudice on the home front. Ostracized by her fellow Japanese military wives for marrying a "kurochan" (black), Sumi has had a particularly lonely go of it.

Despite such obstacles, Sumi and James have slogged along together for 37 years, until James' retirement triggers a crisis. A boozy, brawling former boxer, James now spends his days swilling beer and watching ESPN, while Sumi, a legal secretary, reports to a job she despises. James is apparently content with his unexamined life, but for Sumi, the rut is becoming unbearable.

In pursuit of a fresh start, Sumi has enrolled in pottery classes at the local college. More radically, she has booted James from their comfortable home--a mingling of elegant Japanese decor and middle-class Americana in Edward E. Haynes Jr.'s well-realized set. Now, Sumi wants James to actively court her all over again, with flowers, candy--and most essentially, a fresh attitude.

If it's possible for a couple to "meet cute" after decades of marriage, these two do it. The play opens with James arriving at his house for his first post-separation "date" with Sumi. Considering James' innate irascibility, the situation is contrived from the get-go, since there are few clues to James' emotional dependency or the reasons why he accepts Sumi's capriciously imposed strictures. In previous dramas, Gotanda has sympathetically depicted the plight of various women at odds with a patriarchal status quo. For his doomed heroine in "Ballad of Yachiyo," rebellion proves fatal. However, for Masi, the long-suffering wife in Gotanda's "The Wash," shedding tradition--not to mention a hidebound husband--clears the decks for real love and a new life.

"Yohen" turns this dynamic on its ear. Although Sumi is initially the agent for change, it is James who ultimately embraces it, while Sumi is left to cope with painful consequences of her own making. This potentially powerful scenario sinks under the weight of staccato reminiscences and cumbersome segues.

Notwithstanding the fact that English is a second language for Sumi, her yearnings are so clumsily expressed that we are left largely in the dark about her motivations. James, too, chatters largely at random, at one point launching into a scatological monologue of mind-boggling puerility. And the final crisis, in which the couple belatedly air festering frustrations about not having children, comes across as tacked-on and trumped-up.

Director Ann Bowen stages with a slice-of-life naturalism that consists largely of overlapping James' and Sumi's lines. Considering Gotanda's disconnected dialogue, it's a logical tack. By constantly interrupting, pausing, fishing for their next thought, the characters come across as believably impromptu--although occasionally it's difficult to distinguish where spontaneity leaves off and sloppiness kicks in.

Still, there's something to be said for star power--especially when the star has the solid stage experience of Glover. "Yohen" is a co-production between East West Players and the Robey Theatre Company, of which Glover is a co-founder. Although this is a limited vehicle for Glover, you wouldn't know it from his performance. Comfortable in his own skin, he has a laid-back ease that contrasts well with the more reserved McCarthy. Lounging and inarticulate, Glover's James is a battered old fighter who lets down his lifelong guard and accepts the concussive shock of the new squarely on the chin. It's a sprawling performance, imperfect but compelling.

* "Yohen," David Henry Hwang Theater, Union Center for the Arts, 120 N. Judge Aiso St., Little Tokyo. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2 p.m. Also Jan 20. and Feb. 3, 8 p.m. No matinee this Saturday. Glover's role will be played by Ben Guillory on Jan. 28-29. Ends Feb. 5. $20-$27. (800) 233-3123. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.

Danny Glover: James Woodruff

Nobu McCarthy: Sumi Woodruff

Produced by East West Players and the Robey Theatre Company. Written by Philip Kan Gotanda. Directed by Ann Bowen. Set by Edward E. Haynes Jr. Costumes by Joyce Kim Lee. Lighting by Doc Ballard. Sound by Anthony Brown. Props and set dressing by Ken Takemoto. Production stage manager Irma Escamilla.

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