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Theater Review

Assimilation Angst for Young Korean Americans in Rough 'Funk'

A new generation shakes things up in Euijoon Kim's comedy at the David Henry Hwang Theater.

March 17, 2000|DON SHIRLEY | TIMES THEATER WRITER

The title certainly grabs attention: "My Tired Broke Ass Pontificating Slapstick Funk."

In remarks just before the opening-night performance of Euijoon Kim's new comedy, at David Henry Hwang Theater, East West Players producing artistic director Tim Dang explained that Kim's characters were born in Korea in the '70s, brought to America at an early age and received a crash course in assimilation into the new culture. This sounds promising. Certainly these are characters who haven't been seen on many stages.

Still, when advance explanations are deemed necessary, something might be missing from the play and the production--and that's the case here. "Funk" plays like a rough run-through of a screenplay, not a polished stage production.

Kim immediately gives his audience a crash course of assimilation into his characters' world. The first scene is set in a cafe men's room, where an anonymous drunk is vomiting into a urinal. The next users of the facilities are our young romantic leads: Eric (John Cho) and Karen (Kerri Higuchi). Karen has grown impatient with the line outside the women's room, so she barges in to use the toilet, while Eric uses the urinal. His back is to her, but she warns him not to look, using a gusher of profanity to get across her point. They've been drinking a lot of coffee and beer, so this new-fashioned "meet-cute" scene goes on for some time.

The more traditional supporters of East West Players may squirm, and this is probably part of Kim's intent: to shock the old-timers into realizing that a new generation of angry and alienated Korean Americans has arrived. Not that Kim always takes their anger seriously; their angst and their affectations are the source of a few good laughs. This play is far less polemical (and far less politically correct) than the last East West production that dealt with Korean Americans, "Hanako." Still, anyone who hasn't attended a lot of theater on the fringes should know that Kim's dialogue is raw.

At the same time, however, underneath all the bad words and jaded attitudes lies a conventional Hollywood-influenced romantic comedy. So Kim provides flamboyant best friends for both the guy and the girl, and several awkward encounters that put the leads into situations where they're ostensibly at each other's throats even though we sense the underlying attraction. He gives us a slow-mo scene. Finally, an upbeat ending is supposed to make us think that these two kids might have a future together after all.

All of this works better on paper than it does in the theater, perhaps because it's really a movie disguised as a play. The script also includes another cliche--often seen in the movies and TV--that doesn't work at all, on paper or in performance: an annoyingly precocious little girl who lives next door to Eric and offers him sage counsel. The kid does this as she walks her dog around Eric's lawn; she pursues their relationship despite his tough-guy vigilance against canine intrusions on his turf. The sugar content here is probably supposed to mitigate the sourness of the rest of the dialogue, but in performance these scenes seem bafflingly contrived.

Deborah Nishimura's staging seldom enhances the script. Chris Tashima's stage design doesn't help. A series of slides tries to suggest the visuals that would be there in a movie, but they're overshadowed by a big, drab, clunky set that gets in the way of the action. A couple of key scenes are perched on platforms high above the stage, forcing spectators to crane necks. Much as East West's move to its mid-size theater is to be applauded, this play would probably move faster and bring the audience closer to the characters in a smaller, less proscenium-bound space. Paul James' sound design occasionally falters as well.

Cho's Eric and Art Chudabala as Eric's gangsta-influenced buddy provide the right contrast of irony and heat in their interactions, but everyone onstage occasionally has difficulty mouthing some of Kim's more baroque constructions. Higuchi's Karen seems less comfortable with all the "skanky ho" references than does Alexis Mao as Karen's best friend. Hydo Chang plays another of Eric's pals, whose supposed stuttering isn't apparent until other characters start making fun of him for it.

Especially burdened by scenes on Eric's front lawn, the pacing drags as the evening goes on. The play shouldn't be in as much of a funk as its characters.

* "My Tired Broke Ass Pontificating Slapstick Funk," 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., except no matinee this Saturday. Ends April 9. $25-$30. (800) 233-3123. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

John Cho: Eric

Kerri Higuchi: Karen

Art Chudabala: X Man

Alexis Mao: Jackie

Leilani Grace Murakami: Susan

Hydo Chang: Jay

Leon Goertzen: Julian, Video Store Employee

Written by Euijoon Kim. Directed by Deborah Nishimura. Set by Chris Tashima. Costumes by Dori Quan. Lighting by Jose Lopez. Sound by Paul James. Props by Ken Takemoto. Production stage manager Ricardo Figueroa.

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