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Trying to connect the dots of DNA

November 03, 2006|Daryl H. Miller | Times Staff Writer

The father, eager to pass along what he knows, is hunkered down with his 3-year-old.

"You can do it, Jo," he says encouragingly.

His girl, Jodi, gives it a go. Shuffle-shuffle-hop-slap. Not quite right. He corrects her and she tries again. She does it correctly.

"Wow, that's good," he says, amazed and pleased. "You really learned that quick." From then on, young Jodi Long doesn't just walk around the house; she hops and slaps along, doing her tap-dancer father's time step.

Long was born to performing parents, so her family stories are a bit more glamorous than most other people's. Her autobiographical one-woman theater piece "Surfing DNA," at East West Players, is most engaging when viewing her dancer dad and showgirl mom through a child's eyes.

Her larger effort to try to connect all the dots in her life, to draw them neatly into circles, isn't so successful. She's studying the discipline of tai chi sword when she learns her mother's family descended from a line of samurai swordmakers. She happens to be dating a guy of Scottish descent when an encounter with a distant relative reminds her that her paternal great-grandmother was a Scot. These sweep over her as moments of deja vu, as if imprinted in her DNA by her Japanese, Chinese, Scottish, Australian and American ancestors.

But by this point, theatergoers can be excused for their own moment of deja vu: of feeling as they do when compelled to sit through a friend's vacation photos. Sure, they can appreciate how excited the friend must be, but not having lived through the trip themselves, it's hard to view the pictures as anything other than semi-interesting, disembodied images.

The strongest thread in Long's life is the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical "Flower Drum Song." Her father, Larry Leung, was a replacement actor in the original late-1950s Broadway production. Long -- a memorable presence in such plays as Philip Kan Gotanda's "The Wash" and David Henry Hwang's "Golden Child" -- earned strong notices for her appearance as the vivacious theatrical agent Madame Liang in the early 2000s revamp of that same musical.

On a stage that's mostly bare but for a trunk, Long -- dressed in a simple white blouse and black pants and blazer -- opens the show with a snap of her fingers, the sudden illumination of a Broadway proscenium and a rendition of one of "Flower Drum's" key songs, "Grant Avenue." The rest of the presentation, written by Long, directed by Lisa Peterson and styled by scenic and projection designer Rachel Hauck, is similarly earnest and unprepossessing. The trunk yields what few props are needed, and scene-setting images -- shots of show people, diagrams of DNA double helixes -- are projected onto a screen.

Everything else should be brought alive in words and performance, but that doesn't always happen. Only briefly and sporadically does Long re-create the characters in her story -- the raspy, George Burns-like evocation of her divorced mother's tall-tale-telling boyfriend being a particular favorite. The rest she relates through long, dry passages of narration.

Fortunately, what sticks in the mind is the image of a happy-go-lucky 3-year-old, time-stepping her way through life.


`Surfing DNA'

Where: East West Players, 120 Judge John Aiso St., L.A.

When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays

Ends: Nov. 19

Price: $30 and $35

Contact: (213) 625-7000;

Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes

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