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Theater Review

Gurney's 'Far East' Keeps Its Distance

Staged in Laguna, the 1998 work is intellectually satisfying but suffers from emotional remoteness.

April 08, 2002|RICHARD STAYTON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In search of adventure after graduating from college in the early 1950s, A.R. Gurney went as far as he could by enlisting in the Navy. While the young writer was stationed in Japan, his encounters must have seemed exotic and dramatic.

But by the early 21st century, those experiences don't go far enough to ignite Gurney's semiautobiographical play "Far East," now at the Laguna Playhouse. Today the torment of a corporate heir over an affair with a Japanese waitress feels quaint, like the Hollywood epics set in Asia during that era--"Love Is a Many Splendored Thing," "The Bridges at Toko-Ri" and "Sayonara"--some of which are referred to in Gurney's play.

But if "Far East" doesn't become riveting drama, the production under Jules Aaron's efficient direction does offer an intelligent refresher course about Cold War history. Intellectually, if not emotionally, Gurney's life lessons reward our attention. The prolific playwright, a master of WASP culture's reticent dialogue, has made reference to his postwar Japanese experiences in previous works, such as "The Middle Ages" and even the phenomenally successful "Love Letters." But not until this 1998 play (receiving its Southern California stage premiere in Laguna) had Gurney overtly staged the story.

He was finally at liberty to write "Far East," he has said, because "after almost 50 years, I managed to work out a quasi-Japanese way of telling the story." He added Kabuki and bunraku stagecraft to his signature modern realism. Don Gruber's minimalist set evokes a Japanese teahouse (beautifully lighted by Paulie Jenkins).

Assuming the role of a Kabuki narrator, a so-called Reader (Carie Yonekawa) sits at the edge of the stage, giving voice to a variety of characters and signaling scene changes by clacking wooden blocks, as would happen in classic Kabuki. On the other side of the stage, a percussionist underscores the story by pounding on a taiko drum, as in bunraku theater. Two occasionally veiled "stagehands" carry props and serve as minor characters, again as in classic Japanese theater. Blended with the narrative's realism, these Asian theatrical devices lend a cinematic, almost seamless style to the production. The story moves quickly with a minimum of wasted motion. Yet why does it still feel so slow?

Primarily because Gurney chooses to tell rather than show. "I come from a pretty sheltered background," confides the playwright's alter-ego, Lt. Wallace "Sparky" Watts (a by-the-numbers Darren Bridgett) to Capt. James Anderson (a serviceable Frank Ashmore). "I feel I could benefit from some significant life experiences in the world at large."

Ah, but "junior officers stationed in the Orient can become disoriented," or at least such is the belief of Mrs. Julia Anderson (an inspired Laura Wernette), the captain's frustrated wife, who provides questionable maternal guidance to fresh recruits. Yet when rich, spoiled playboy Sparky arrogantly announces that his pursuit of "experience" means Asian women, she welcomes the challenge of maintaining Sparky's American purity. After all, Julia knows members of his family.

For reasons inexplicable in this production, everyone reaches out to Sparky, whose magnetism as expressed by Bridgett is invisible, although not so much as Sparky's love affair with a local Japanese girl, which is only described. (Imagine Romeo without Juliet. He talks a good game, and yet....) The more Mrs. Anderson interferes with the graduate, the more he declares his undying love for the girl. When marriage looms, Mrs. Anderson decides it's her duty to alert the young man's conservative Midwestern parents.

A well-meaning but distracting subplot concerns a repressed homosexual ensign (Michael Edwards) who becomes the victim of blackmailing espionage agents. The sole purpose of this second story line appears to be the playwright's desire to expose the '50s roots of the '60s Vietnam debacle.

Arias from "Madame Butterfly" would be expected if this wasn't Gurney, who dreads melodrama and fears naked emotion and what he has termed "the sentimental and the personal." This aristocratic reserve usually serves Gurney admirably, but here the reluctance frustrates the rich potential of the Kabuki and No rituals. When offered the opportunity, director Aaron often employs highly theatrical stage effects, as he did a few years ago in an extraordinary "Equus" in Hollywood. Despite these No, Kabuki and bunraku elements, the playwright's emotional detachment undermines the conventions. In last year's PBS version of "Far East," Gurney successfully adapted his play for TV and fleshed out the love interest, showing audiences the actual affair.

But one emotionally confrontational scene demonstrates what might have been. A drunken Mrs. Anderson enters Sparky's room and seeks some resolution to the unresolved passion. Wernette prowls like Tennessee Williams' torrid Maggie the Cat, encircling the lieutenant in an acting tour de force. Will she go too far? This being Gurney country, not "Sayonara," no one travels out of mind.

*

"Far East," Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday matinees 2 p.m. Ends May 5. $38-$45. (949) 497-2787, Ext. 1. Running time: two hours.

Lt. Wallace "Sparky" Watts ... Darren Bridgett

Capt. James Anderson ... Frank Ashmore

Mrs. Julia Anderson ... Laura Wernette

Ensign Bob Munger ... Michael Edwards

Reader ... Carie Yonekawa

By A.R. Gurney. Directed by Jules Aaron. Set by Don Gruber. Costumes by Dwight Richard Odle. Lighting by Paulie Jenkins. Music by Bryan Yamami.

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