Get local news delivered straight to your phone

I was going to describe Sparky Watts, the tennis-playing, brewery-inheriting, naively idealistic Navy lieutenant at the center of A.R. Gurney’s quasi-autobiographical drama Far East, as a stand-up kind of guy…except that at the Studio Theatre, he keeps sitting down.

He sits, without being invited to, almost immediately upon reporting to his commander’s office at the American naval base at Yokosuka, Japan. At a social engagement in his dress whites, he sits before the commander’s wife does, though he’s theoretically hellbent on making a good impression. And when she later discovers him out of uniform in his quarters—he is, in fact, all but undressed—he expresses his panic about being caught in a compromising position by…sitting down on the edge of his bed.

I mean, excuse me? Not having been in the military, I won’t pretend I know the drill on how subordinates behave when meeting their superior officers. But the other two incidents qualify, respectively, as breaches of etiquette and of common sense that no self-respecting country-clubber would have committed circa 1954, on a Navy base or anywhere else.

Sparky, I’m forced to conclude, either is stupid or has been very oddly directed—something that might also be said about the play Gurney has built around him. You can’t accuse Far East of being unambitious; in addition to providing helpful little hints for social climbers (Sparky is told to fold down a corner of his calling card when leaving it for a hostess so she’ll know no reply is required), the play means to deal with racism (he falls for a Japanese woman), homophobia (his best buddy is gay), military secrets (the buddy’s boyfriend is a spy), and America’s then-embryonic involvement in Vietnam.

All these elements, alas, are addressed so superficially as to suggest that the author regards card-folding and war-waging as equivalently weighty issues. Gurney has always excelled at capturing the mind-set of characters who enjoy devoting serious thought to whether to have olives or onions in their martinis, and he has no peer as chronicler of a certain kind of WASP shallowness. But, although he’s painting on a significantly grander canvas in this play than in the acerbic domestic dramedies The Cocktail Hour and The Dining Room, his methods haven’t changed a bit. His characters still natter on about tennis, golf, the origins of the drinks they’re imbibing, and whether dancing with the kitchen help is socially appropriate. With domestic issues so outweighing the larger concerns Far East touches on, the worldly concerns end up seeming trivial.

Support City Paper!

$
$
$

Your contribution is appreciated.

Joy Zinoman’s staging marshals the evening’s Far Eastern elements right at the outset. Two women in kimonos are already on stage. One (Tamiko Savittiere) is plucking a koto, a long-necked, stringed instrument from which she manages to wrest a surprising variety of sounds and moods as the evening progresses. The other (Mia Whang) wields a brush and appears to be practicing calligraphy, but she’s actually there to vocally brush in the many subsidiary characters who surround the evening’s central foursome (a narrative device borrowed from Japanese theater).

It says something that Whang, shifting accents in virtually every line to play more than a dozen characters of both sexes and various nationalities, ends up making a sharper impression than do any of the principals. Only Patrick Moltane, as Sparky’s roommate, comes close to creating a full-bodied person out of the tics and wisecracks the author provides. Rick Foucheux is curiously indistinct as the well-meaning but distracted Capt. Anderson, a career soldier who looks at Sparky and sees a younger version of himself, still idealistic and full of possibilities. As the captain’s busybody of a wife, who tries for selfish reasons to put a stop to Sparky’s romance with his Japanese girlfriend, Elizabeth Long looks a lot like Donna Reed in her ’50s frocks and sweaters, but she can’t negotiate the character’s unlikely transformation into Blanche DuBois in the evening’s later scenes. Between her predatory female, the innocent stud at the play’s center, and sexual taboos in the subplot, you’d swear Gurney was trying to channel Tennessee Williams.

Matthew Montelongo brings a model’s presence and an ingratiatingly toothy grin to his portrayal of Sparky, but he makes the character seem more cocky and calculating than boyish—which leaves you wondering why the captain and his wife are so eager to take him under their respective wings. That the character is based on the playwright (who evidently had an affair with a Japanese woman while serving as a naval officer) adds an interesting footnote but doesn’t automatically make him empathetic. Production elements are, as always at Studio, first-rate, from Russell Metheny’s stagewide maps and painted Japanese screens to Michael Lincoln’s understated lighting. All very decorative, all very uninvolving.

Fernando Arrabal’s El Arquitecto y el Emperador de Asiria (“The Architect and the Emperor of Assyria”) is a classic example of theater of the absurd. Set in an arid, rocky exile—”an island of the mind,” says the program—it involves its iconic title characters in arguments and storytelling remarkably like those engaged in by Didi and Gogo in Waiting for Godot.

Arrabal’s absurdism is more political than Beckett’s, mostly because he’s given his characters class differences. And his dialogue is considerably more concerned with whips, chains, and biological functions (“Did you have your BM today? How was it?…Hard or soft”). But when it comes to absurdism’s trademark—circular logic—he bows to no one. And even in translation (on headset, and very smartly done, for a change), he’s adept at wordplay: “I want to die,” says the Emperor at one point, “disguised as the Bishop of Chess.”

José Carrasquillo, who staged Gala’s splendidly absurd La Granada two years ago with both the Emperor (Hugo Medrano) and the Architect (Luis Caram) in his cast, tackles Arrabal armed with a considerable gift for animating repetitive dialogue and an odd, not entirely successful, staging notion. At the play’s outset, he places the actors behind a translucent scrim—it’s a patchwork of materials, some more transparent than others—and except for a few moments, he keeps them there for the play’s entire first half-hour. Initially, the men’s antics, backlit by Ayun Fedorcha, have a playful sort of kids-in-a-tent-with-flashlights quality. But the shadowplay device gets old long before the director tires of it. And once the scrim falls, there’s just more of the same old, same old.

Act 2 is mostly taken up with a mock trial at which the Emperor confesses to—oh, you don’t really want to know, and it would be hard to say, anyway. Suffice it to say that the Emperor needs the Architect as much as the Architect needs him, if only as an audience. In this sort of evening, their arguments don’t matter; the arguing is all. And qua, qua, qua. CP