There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
A tall section of chain-link fence looms downstage before the start of Asian Stories in America Theatre’s production of Han Ong’s Middle Finger, and for an idle moment, you wonder how long it’ll take before one of the play’s characters grabs and shakes it or throws himself against it in a fit of James Dean melodrama. (Under a minute, actuallynot a good sign for the rest of the evening.) But while the fence holds up under its evening’s workout, the play itself lets everybody down. Ong, a prolific young playwright who was awarded a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” five years ago, has in Middle Finger written a basically unplayable script. The story of two Filipino-American teen boys warping under the pressures of a strict Catholic high school and bad homes, the play is an adolescent take on adolescence, all existential anguish and rebellion and self-pity. Which might be tolerable if the writer had sneaked a little life in between bouts of hormonal rage, but Ong is too busy knocking down straw people to see how wooden his creations are. Jakob (John D. Guzman) and Lunga (Joey Cabrera) are the two boys, best friends who frankly don’t seem to have a lot in common other than being victimized by the school’s obtuse and sadistic staff. (It’s a good measure of Ong’s detachment from reality that he thinks audiences will buy his crayon-line caricature of the high school, where students are rapped on the knuckles daily for unclipped fingernails and then forced to announce how their uncleanliness has condemned them to hell. As a survivor of Catholic schooling, I can tell you that its humiliations are infinitely more subtle and creative.) The boys also face father trouble: Lunga’s abuses his mother; Jakob’s either checks out or pressures his son to assimilate. In fact, Middle Finger has plenty of rich themes to exploregenerational similarities as well as differences in immigrant dreams, the school’s undercurrent of bigotry, or the epidemic of teen suicide. But Ong just lurches from situation to situation, grievance to grievance. He’ll present a vignette (such as a student visiting his mentally disturbed brother in the hospital), milk its ready-made emotions with speechifying for a minute or two, and then abandon it. Director Michelle T. Hall does keep things moving, and the set and lighting are appealingly spare without being barren, although sound director Arielle Edwards makes the unfortunate choice of using a deafening industrial compressor to announce all of the high school scenes. Guzman and Cabrera are two actors who are going places; they manage to convey physically the right note of still-unformed softness underneath their veneers of smartass boys-only bravado. But when Guzman’s Jakob has to moan lines like “I’m all alone in this world!” just because nobody will cut class with him, or has to masturbate to a picture of St. Teresa for sheer shock value, you feel for him as a performer, not as a character. Instead of making a jaunty gesture to authority, these high schoolers mostly kvetch like 40-something failures, and the rest of the cast is saddled with stereotypes, not roles. It’s understandable that ASIA chose to put on something from this hot new playwright, but the company’s abilities are way beyond Middle Finger. Robert Lalasz