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THEATER REVIEW

A meeting of the murky motives club

May 17, 2003|Don Shirley | Times Staff Writer

Granted, there is a dearth of TV sitcoms set among the older generation of Japanese Americans. So perhaps East West Players, lacking the resources of a TV studio, is responding to a perceived community need by staging a sitcom-like play, "The Nisei Widows Club." The company has even changed its usual performance schedule to provide more matinees, which are likelier to be attended by seniors.

Still, "Nisei" (the word refers to second-generation Japanese Americans) is strained and sodden even by sitcom standards. You know you're on thin ice when a male character appears in disguise in drag -- and just about everyone on stage is none the wiser, yet everyone in the audience can figure out his real identity in about two seconds.

The play is by "Betty Tokudani." But if you read "Betty's" bio in the program, after the part about her being "a Sansei housewife from Seattle who had a creative side she always needed to express," you soon learn that "Betty" is actually three East West Players -- Tim Dang (who also directed), Denise Iketani and Marilyn Tokuda. They wrote the play "to pay tribute to the Nisei women who have contributed so much to the Asian Pacific American community." It's an odd way of paying tribute -- to depict a bunch of nisei women as silly and vain and scatterbrained. The play carries the air of an expanded in-joke, something that may have started as a comedy sketch and then ballooned into a play without benefit of rigorous dramaturgy.

It's set in the Gardena home of Sumi (Takayo Fischer), the controlling president of the titular club. In the play's only significant departure from the style of most sitcoms, she is visited by the ghost of her golf-devoted husband, Shig (Michael Yama), at the same time she is holding a club meeting.

At first one assumes that this "Blithe Spirit"-like device will be the play's comic engine, as the ghost -- invisible to everyone except his widow -- wreaks comic havoc. But Shig is soon upstaged.

The widows' club has a new prospective member -- a man. Tak (Sab Shimono) is a smooth-talking widower whose reasons for wanting to join are never spelled out, but who presumably wants to be the only guy in a roomful of flirtatious widows.

When Sumi balks at admitting a man whom she knew as a class clown in her youth, he validates his class clown credentials by disguising himself as a female Japanese psychic, complete with an elaborate kimono and makeup. His plan is that the psychic will persuade the club to admit him as a member.

Other than Tak's chief club sponsor Betty (June Kyoko Lu), who is in on his deception from the beginning, the women fall for his act. Shimono's drag routine is the play's comic highlight. Meanwhile Shig, the ghost, fades, more or less, into the woodwork.

Besides the aforementioned, the club's most prominent members are former beauty queen Tomi (Jeanne Sakata), who is shepherded by her overattentive son (Robert Isaac Lee), and Hana (Emily Kuroda), whose main shtick is that her keen sense of smell allows her to pick up on certain masculine scents.

The leading actresses, all seasoned pros, are at least a decade too young for these roles. Indeed, the play appears to be an opportunity for middle-aged people to have a little fun with the older generation rather than a genuine forum for the older generation.

*

'The Nisei Widows Club'

Where: David Henry Hwang Theater, 120 Judge John Aiso St., Little Tokyo

When: Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Thursdays, Saturdays, Sundays, 2 p.m.

Ends: June 8

Price: $25 to $30

Contact: (213) 625-7000, Ext. 20

Running Time: 2 hours, 5 minutes

Takayo Fischer...Sumi

Emily Kuroda...Hana

June Kyoko Lu...Betty

Jeanne Sakata...Tomi

Sab Shimono...Tak

Michael Yama...Shig

Irene Sanaye Furukawa...Michiko

Donna Kimura...Fumiko

Annabelle M. Lee...Masako

Robert Isaac Lee...Frank

By "Betty Tokudani". Directed by Tim Dang. Set by Wayne Nakasone. Costumes by Rodney Kageyama. Lighting by G. Shizuko Herrera. Sound by Kaname Morishita. Production stage manager Anna Woo.

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