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A CurtainUp Review

I too was a plain little girl with big yearnings. A diamond in the rough. And all I did was polish it a little. That's all this is: polish.. . . True beauty is not born, it's an act of will. And all you have to do is choose it.--- Isabel, explaining why she has given her 14-year-old daughter the choice of eye or nose improving surgery as a birthday gift.

Olivia Oguma
Olivia Oguma
(Photo: T. Charles Erickson)
I liked Julia Cho's last play, The Architecture of Loss, well enough to look forward to seeing this young (she's not yet thirty) playwright's next work. Like the New York Theatre Workshop play, BFE, is set in an Arizona town and filled with lives as arid as the desert landscape.

As in Architecture, the lives of the three central characters in BFE are tightly packed with pain and dysfunction that seems to reflect the reach of American pop culture. The emphasis here is on the beauty myth that has iconized blonde haired prettiness to the point that having eyes that slant and noses without well-defined bridges can do serious damage to the self-esteem of girls whose looks would be just fine if they had not bought into the Marilyn Monroe style beauty standard.

Cho has packed her play chockfull of characters, but one around whom all the events and ideas swirl is Panny, a young Asian-American girl, played with enormous sensitivity and charm by Olivia Oguma. While many teen agers are vulnerable to low self-esteem, Panny's conviction that she's unattractive is exacerbated by her difficult home situation. Her not especially loving mother Isabel (Kate Rigg) urges her to have her nose or eyes fixed. This is questionable advice, to put it mildly, since Isabel's own "act of will." to achieve beauty left her severely agoraphobic, a delusional composite of 1940s B-movie vamps. The only romance her surgery enhanced "beauty " has brought her is a fantasy love affair with World War II hero General MacArthur (Jeremy Hollingworth).

The more positive and loving figure in Panny's life is her uncle Lefty (James Saito) though he too is one of life's unconnected, emotional cripples. Having pledged himself to take care of his sister and the child abandoned by its father, his love for Panny and the tiny Dungeon and Dragon figures he paints when not working as a department store watchman are what keeps him going. Those figures are somewhat reminiscent of the mentally unstable Laura's beloved glass figure collection in The Glass Menagerie, though ultimately Lefty is more like that play's Tom who yearns to get away and live his own life.

As Panny explains in her opening monologue " things happen all the time out here" and the playwright sees to it that lots does happen. Aided by Gordon Edelstein's generally smooth direction and Takeshi Kata's adaptable set, the shifts from audience addressing monologues to direct action, from the present to past events, make for a watchable and involving uninterrupted hour and forty minutes. (Edelstein would have done well to watch the production from every section of this small theater. From where I sat (fourth row center) Panny's watch flashes distractingly during the opening monologue and, while the theater is small, the seats aren't staggered for uniformly excellent sightlines. Thus during a scene when two actors are interacting while sitting on the floor, I was able to see just one.

The monologues include appearances by Panny's pen-pal Hae-Yoon, a teenager in Korea (a terrifically comic performance by Sue Jean Kim) who's also bought into the American pop culture (adopting an American name, describing her hair as Coca Cola colored and drinking Coca Cola every chance she gets). We also get two predictably doomed romances in real time -- Uncle Lefty's with Evvie, a black clerk (the mellifluous-voiced Karen Kandel) and Panny's telephone romance with Hugo (James McMenamin), a Mormon college student she meets when she misdials a number. Even Isabel takes a stab at real rather than fantasy romance by seducing Jack, the pizza delivery boy (Jeremy Hollingworth hilariously double cast as Jack as well as the fantasy MacArthur figure). But wait, there's more. Overhanging Panny and Isabel and Lefty's romantic mishaps is a serial killer (Scott Hudson) who's been abducting and killing young girls. The fact that all his victims are blondes proves that the beauty myth knows no boundaries. and makes for a too melodramatic and downbeat ending.

All these plot strands supply plenty of opportunity for the playwright to demonstrate her fine ear for the nuances of dialogue and her knack for leavening sadness with humor. The overstuffed plot also demonstrate that this is a still emerging writer, with a tendency to overdo on the "things happen" elements and melodramatic ambiguity while leaving too many unanswered specifics; for example, how did this family happen to settle in this Arizona wasteland (or as Panny defines the everytown title and town name, "Bum Fuck, Egypt")? And how does a watchman's salary cover food and rent and elective plastic surgery? In the final analysis, however, these loose ends and the play's excesses matter less than the interesting questions it raises about self-perception and reality.

The Architecture of Loss

Written by Julia Cho
Directed by Gordon Edelstein.
Cast: Jeremy Hollingworth (Jack/General), Scott Hudson (Man), Karen Kandel (Evvie), Sue Jean Kim (Hae-Yoon), Kel Martin (Nancy), James McMenamin (Hugo), Olivia Oguma (Panny), Kate Rigg (Isabel) and James Saito (Lefty).
Set Design: Takeshi Kata
Costume Design: Jayde Chabot
Lighting Design: Paul Whitaker
Sound Design: Andre J. Pluess, Ben Sussman
Running time: intermission.
Playwrights Horizons in association with Long Wharf Theatre, Peter Jay Sharp Theater, 416 West 42nd Street, (212) 279-4200
From 5/13/05 to 6/12/05; opening 5/31/05.
Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:30 PM, Saturdays at 2:00 & 7:30 PM and Sundays at 2:00 & 7:00 PM
Tickets: $38.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on June 1st performance
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