If lovers have, in the words of Chay Yew’s title, A Language of Their Own, then the playwright qualifies as one hell of an interpreter. The cryptic, coded lingo used by Oscar and Ming, two Asian-American men who are about to part after living together for four years, could hardly be more specialized, nor more universal. Ditto Yew’s notion that language itself can be made to serve as a metaphor. This couple’s state of togetherness can be charted in the stammer that infects its conversation when Oscar tests positive for AIDS.
They never fight—something Ming, who is younger and more free-spirited, now regrets—and the breakup of their liaison proves no exception. Oscar’s “I don’t think we should see each other any more” is uttered quietly, though it will acquire, in memory, an increasing ferocity. As each lover reconstructs the story of how they came together and broke apart, the words take on new inflections, finally realigning themselves into a hail of syllables (“I…don’t…think…we…should…”) each ofwhich represents a different kind of pain.
Nonetheless, they continue to complete each other’s sentences, albeit mostly in asides to the audience. That they have ended up as “two awkward strangers, alone in a room wrestling with that strange language that only exists between ex-lovers” doesn’t for a moment silence their reminiscing, much of which deals with the other jargon they picked up later than most U.S. citizens. Oscar (Stan Kang), whose refined taste and demure bearing are the products of a Chinese childhood, recalls the beatings his immigrant father gave him for shirking English lessons after the family arrived in this country, and the delight he later took in correcting his father’s English. Ming (Richard Dorton), who adopted his made-up Chinese moniker late in his teens to avoid being labeled ABC (American-born Chinese), traces his own development to My Fair Lady. “I thought I was Audrey Hepburn,” he says, explaining that the film version was pivotal to his youthful worldview. “It made me speak proper English, appreciate beautiful clothes, and realize I was gay.”
By the end of the first act, these two have so established why opposites attract that when they announce they’ve found other lovers and are getting on with their lives, what should be glad tidings seem terribly sad. Warm, embracing Ming latches quickly onto Robert (David Fendig), a Caucasian headwaiter, while standoffish Oscar dates Daniel (Edu. Bernardino), a Filipino Harvard student he describes as a “radical queer Asian who lives and breathes Sondheim.” By rights, the audience should hate the new guys, but when Robert and Daniel appear in the second act, they turn out to be as appealing as the protagonists. The play might easily have become a Tower of Babel as each couple develops its own private dialect, but the playwright manages to blend the various styles of verbal coding and shorthand into a sort of poetry instead.
A Language of Their Own is the second part of a trilogy Yew began with Porcelain, a play about a conflicted Asian teen-ager who slays the Caucasian lover with whom he has been having sex in public toilets. Anyone who saw the haunting production Consenting Adults Theater Company mounted of that earlier play (which also featured Dorton in a central role and Fendig in a minor one) will recognize Yew’s stylized approach to dialogue. Where Porcelain was scripted as a sort of fugue for five voices, A Language of Their Own is a series of interlocking duets. Which is not to suggest that the words themselves are particularly musical. One-liners abound (“Ikea: Sweden’s biggest export since Abba and euthanasia”) as the characters carp and cavil. In performance, though, the actors’ vocal rhythms sometimes take the dialogue to an ethereal plane, as when Daniel is describing a harrowing moment in which the AIDS-debilitated Oscar becomes disoriented while shopping. The words aren’t extraordinary, but the moment is, as director Jose Carrasquillo narrows the focus to two trembling forms in a spotlight.
He’s aided by Ron Oshima’s evocative sound design, Ayun Fedorcha’s shifting pools of light, and character-defining costumes provided by Reggie Ray, as well as by extraordinary performances all around. Dorton and Kang are exquisitely attuned as the central couple, their postures saying nearly as much about the changes in their relationship as the rush of their overlapping sentences. Freshly bleached-blond Fendig makes Robert solid and appealing, and Bernardino is a genuine delight as the tart, always-ready-with-a-quip Daniel. His manner is usually so buoyant that it’s almost shocking when his eyes glisten with tears at the thought of Oscar’s decline.
Like Porcelain, this play concludes in a less than satisfying way. The author, having sharply articulated all sorts of internal conflicts—Ming’s frustration, say, that he can only picture the lover he’s cheating on while screwing strangers—can’t seem to find his linguistic footing when dealing with the external fact of Oscar’s impending death. After almost two hours of emotionally brisk understatement, Yew settles in the clinch for sentiment. Briefly. It is the only time he’s even remotely at a loss for words.
Let’s start with what’s right about Holiday Heart, the laugh-filled situation-tragedy currently occupying Arena’s Kreeger Theater. Cheryl L. West, who chronicled an African-American family’s reaction to AIDS in Before It Hits Home and the familial bonding of four generations of black women in Jar the Floor, is intent on re-examining the very notion of family, and she’s come up with a corker of a clan to make her point.
West’s protagonist, 12-year-old Niki Dean (Afi McClendon), has cobbled together a serviceable family unit from the only materials available to her: her devoted but somewhat unreliable mother, Wanda (Donna Biscoe) and next-door neighbor Holiday Heart (Jeffery V. Thompson), a 300-pound drag queen with a heart of gold and gowns to match. When Mom, who is a recovering drug addict, hooks up with Silas (Ron Cephas Jones), a dapper dude who runs a chauffeur service that can’t possibly be the source of all the wealth that surrounds him, both Holiday and Niki disapprove. Niki is won over in the first act, Holiday in the second, but by that time, Wanda has hit the skids, and the play is careening toward melodrama.
Each of the characters is fresh and intriguing, from McClendon’s giddily naive, tart-tongued adolescent to Thompson’s giddily knowing, tart-tongued drag queen. Biscoe makes Wanda’s struggle with drugs a more nuanced ordeal than is generally the case. And best of all is Jones’ surprisingly appealing Silas, who is easily the most empathetic drug dealer I’ve seen portrayed in any dramatic medium. That his profession sows the seeds of other characters’ downfalls in no way diminishes Silas’ standing in West’s estimation. She portrays him as a flawed but principled surrogate father to Niki, and provides him with a background that goes a long way to explaining his situation and his mind-set. If he were the only well-developed character in the play, he’d be enough to make sitting through it worthwhile.
Happily, though, he isn’t. Even bit player Robert Wayne White has some nicely varied moments as both a threatening pimp and a sweetly sex-crazed teen. And Thompson takes Holiday Heart’s fondness for oversize wigs and sequined dresses, which seem to be bursting with an entire girl group every time he makes an entrance, and translates it into a performance that’s notable for its delicacy. Oh, he can overdo—as in a sequence that finds him freaking over how to deal with Niki’s first menstruation (in his mouth, the word seems to have about a dozen syllables, every one accented)—but mostly, he’s remarkably understated.
Would that the same could be said about the playwright, who can’t seem to leave a thought unexpressed or a platitude unmilked. Especially when they occur to her title character. “No matter how bad things get, don’t let anybody make you ashamed of who you are,” says Holiday. “One of the hardest things in life is learning to let go,” says Holiday. “Wanda’s problem is she ain’t never believed in tomorrow,” says Holiday. The character is a walking fortune cookie, a fact even Thompson’s performance can’t entirely mask. The tendency to state, restate, and overstate infects so much of the play that it has ended up 45 minutes longer than it needs to be.
Holiday Heart is now in its fourth incarnation after debuting at Syracuse Stage—in a co-production with the Cleveland Playhouse and the Seattle Rep (from which director Gilbert McCauley hails)—and has already played the Manhattan Theater Club in New York. This probably means it’s not going to change much in the future, but you can’t help wishing McCauley had insisted on pruning. Fewer gaudy entrances for the title character and fewer authorial bulletins might well cost the evening some laughs, but would strengthen Holiday Heart‘s impact considerably.