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There’s something endearingly tentative about The Theory of Everything, something eager and earnest about the way Prince Gomolvilas tests the various sinews of his playwriting muscles. If the result is a less-than-balanced workout, it’s still an exercise that demonstrates no shortage of promise.
Part of the trouble, surely, is that Theory is nearly as ambitious as the fruitless Einsteinian effort that lends the play its title. Gomolvilas strings various meditations on identity and yearning on a story line whose twists turn on a 20-something law-school dropout, a middle-aged woman fleeing the dream-hauntings of her long-dead husband, a childless couple who run a Vegas wedding chapel, a frustrated philosophy major, and a fresh-faced young Keno runner whose struggles with a long-denied inner self have driven him to rename himself after a popular over-the-counter painkiller. The sense of authorial whimsy is just a trifle strenuouseven if you overlook the “unifying” story element about a weekendlong watch for alien visitors.
Said vigil is the brainchild of Patty, a Thai-American who opens the show with the announcement that she wants to talk “about aliensnot people from other countries,” but the kind of aliens who come with a “big head, big black eyes, tiny holes where the nose should be.” The opening phrases of her monologue are just quirky enough to fire hopes of a dryly funny discourse on Middle American attitudes about the Otherperhaps a clever reference to our national obtuseness about the variations in Asian physiognomybut nothing of the sort develops. Instead, we get thin comic references to The X-Files and the Boy Scouts, to being jealous of abductees and to Being Prepared.
The blackout that follows is, one suspects, meant to be as snappy as some of the exchanges on the page likewise promise to be; certainly Gomolvilas’ scene structure, with its solo confessional speeches and its confrontational ensemble set-pieces, is workmanlike enough. But in Stan Kang’s production, mounted by Asian Stories in America in Arlington’s new Theatre on the Run space, neither dialogue nor darkness falls with the sureness, with the sense of punctuation, that can make an iffy script seem tighter in performance. Kang and his cast miss most of the wistfulness that occasionally makes Gomolvilas’ script more than just a sitcom, and certainly they take a broader view of comedy than the playwright does; they dwell too often on what should be throwaway jokes, striking laugh-now poses after the short ones and reading longer ironic passages with a madcap intensity that squeezes the humor straight out of them.
And yet a few of the playwright’s finer sensibilities manage to cut through the histrionic clutter. There’s a lovely exchange toward the end, for instance, in which a desolate woman deconstructs the word “godmother” in a single deft phrase; MiRan Powell and Yan Xi play that scene with a reserve and a delicacy that are almost entirely missing elsewhere.
Al Twanmo, as a 40-ish man homesick in his own household, likewise finds a few moments of grace in an ungracefully drawn character; John D. Guzman, too, shades his performance with something like subtlety, though not consistently or often enough to rescue Gilbert (the would-be pharmaceutical) from the dated conundrum the playwright has given him. (It’s possible that the conflicted-adolescent-coming-out story still needs to be told, especially in a variety of minority-community contexts, but surely today’s playwrights need at least to acknowledge that there have been several decades of cultural conversation on the subject.) Gilbert does, at least, get another of the half-dozen or so speeches that, if they fall short of literary polish, at least rise above the pedestrian.
The design team, for its part, does the play almost more service than does the cast. Costumier Edu. Bernardino takes one of several clever sartorial cues from Gilbert’s observations about living in a place that feels too much like a land of the lost; John Schertler’s set, meanwhile, imagines the wedding-chapel rooftop in spare if squarely literal terms, with an air-conditioning unit stationed smack in the middle of the playing area and bright-bulbed Chapel of Love signage “protruding” from the floor. It’s an impressive-looking accomplishment on what was presumably an unimpressive budget.
What doesn’t come through nearly as clearly in ASIA’s production is Gomolvilas’ concern with the complexities of Asian-American experiencea curious fact, given the company’s mission and multiethnic makeup. Generational and regional perspectives come into play in Theory, as do the varying concerns of first-generation immigrants and their born-in-the-USA children. One character struggles with her parents’ expectations, another with the assumptions of the customers to whom he delivers Chinese food, yet another with the uneasy embrace of a culture that insists on his essential sexlessness.
The thinness of the playwright’s treatment suggests that his interest in these subjects is less analytical than observational, but Kang and his cast hurry past what little he has to say. That’s hardly a tragedythe script just isn’t that richbut in a play whose central argument is whether inexorable entropy governs our every waking moment, it’s irony of a mildly tragic sort. CP