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THEATER REVIEW

The American dream: next exit

A Korean family escapes life's is appointments in the poignant 'Durango.'

September 24, 2007|Charles McNulty | Times Staff Writer

The American dream may be just that, but boy, has it furnished an endless supply of theatrical fare. The only subject that might be even more popular, at least when it comes to the movies, is the lure of the open road. In "Durango," a finely wrought drama being given its West Coast premiere by East West Players, playwright Julia Cho combines these classic themes to tell the story of a recently laid-off father who packs his two sons in the car to escape the disappointment that's warping their life together.

Boo-Seng Lee (Nelson Mashita), a widowed Korean immigrant whose main ambition is to see his motherless boys succeed, has lost his office job to downsizing after 20 years of service. Humiliated, he returns home to find Isaac (Jin Suh) and Jimmy (Ryan Cusino) squabbling as usual. His taciturn demeanor is broken only by the need to either chastise or exhort them, and even then every word emerges as though chipped from a block of ice.

Isaac has come back from Honolulu, where his father pulled strings to get him a medical school interview. He'd rather play the guitar and figure out his future over time, but he pretends he's on board with becoming a doctor to keep his dad off his back. Jimmy -- younger, more conciliatory and full of longing for a loving household -- is the golden boy, an honors student who's also a champion swimmer. Both siblings are hiding things they know will crush their father. Little do they suspect that the old man has a couple of devastating secrets of his own.

The trio embark for Durango, Colo., a mountainous mecca for Mr. Lee signifying all the beauty and deep feeling he has lost sight of while struggling to get ahead in this land of fabled opportunity. Isaac, who wants only to be left alone, has to be practically dragged along when he's told they're traveling outside Arizona. He has terrible memories of childhood trips in which his father's tyrannical desire to tour national landmarks inevitably led to acrimonious fights between his parents, and this impromptu jaunt doesn't seem to be starting off any better.

When Isaac reveals he didn't contact his dad's friend during his recent visit, Mr. Lee sputters with rage. All his hard work and sacrifice, and this is the thanks he gets? A master at dispensing guilt, he fosters an atmosphere in which his sons must conceal their true selves from him, just as he has disguised his own.

Jimmy, who shoulders the hopes of his father, copes with his anxiety by inventing a comic strip superhero that appears onstage (in a role gamely assayed by Alex Klein). Trouble is, this character departs from the usual Marvel type and ends up provoking questions about Jimmy's sexual orientation.

An interstate journey of entrenched generational dysfunction, Cho's scrupulously detailed and restrained play rarely hits a false note. And under the truth-seeking direction of Chay Yew, the sensitively acted production follows suit, presenting scenes of domestic discord that make up in resonant realism what they sometimes lack in theatricality.

"Durango" isn't the most exciting paternal-filial standoff ever written. There's a prosaic somberness to the writing, a monotone quality that could use a bit more comic pick-me-up, and the plot occasionally cruises down overly familiar stretches of highway. But there's a breathtaking honesty to the way small moments are handled, and by avoiding phony climaxes and resolutions, Cho manages to capture the quotidian stream.

The issues dramatized are not far removed from those depicted in Clifford Odets' 1935 classic, "Awake and Sing!" How can one transcend the limits of one's parents while still honoring their selfless struggle? And how is it possible to keep hold of one's dreams when the business of life is such a juggernaut?

Odets' play brought to the stage the quirks and customs of its Jewish characters, and "Durango" does a similar service for its Korean Americans. We're given a private view of the pains and possibilities of assimilation. And Cho is adept at capturing a whole conflicted history in a passing glance, as when Mr. Lee's kids feel quietly ashamed because he's doing old-fashioned back stretches at a rest stop.

The three leads offer nuanced performances that would work equally effectively on film. In fact, the play often feels like a staged movie, especially with the video background provided by Jason H. Thompson conjuring a panorama of American travel.

Interrupting the vérité are a few surreal tangents, the most moving of which are the occasions in which the men get to incarnate the memory of a mother and wife whose absence is like a permanently eclipsed sun.

Poignant stuff. As Mr. Lee wonders, "Why did I learn to want so little for myself?," his sons try to avoid the same mistake without ditching all their love.

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charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

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'Durango'

Where: David Henry Hwang Theater at the Union Center for the Arts, 120 Judge John Aiso St., L.A.

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

Ends: Oct. 14

Price: $30 to $35

Contact: (213) 625-7000 or www.eastwestplayers.org

Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes

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