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A CurtainUp Review
Chinese Friends

I hate to break it to you, but your old gang-- 'killer humanists'-- I believe you were called-- you think that this country would have you back? Dr. Brice, nobody listened to you. You were totally ineffective. And look what has happened to us. The dynasty of cowboys and corporate criminals. . .
---Ajax, whose father, Arthur Strauss finishes this remark for him with "Have reduced the only great experiment in democracy to a nation bordering on medieval backwardness. This country will have me back and will welcome me with open arms."
Bess Wohl, Tyler Francavilla (seated) & Will McCormack
Bess Wohl, Tyler Francavilla (seated) & Will McCormack-- the trio of young people so disillusioned by the failed attempts of their elders to fix what what the George W. Bush administration spawned, that they find comfort in huddling together " a tangle of parts, comfort, power, fluid , the opposite of the tightness from which we were spawned."
(Photo: Joan Marcus )
Chinese Friends is the latest work by Jon Robin Baitz, a playwright already established as a gifted wordsmith and eloquent chronicler on contemporary issues affecting individuals and the society at large. Literally ripped from the headlines, the play evolved as Baitz watched the powers that be in the current administration gear up for the Iraq War and found himself pondering what this plunge into the uncharted waters of a new kind of war would mean in the long term. Could the problems that followed the toppling of Saddam Hussein be fixed by a more liberal but not necessarily more effectively humane administration? What would the effect be on the children born when this new world order was being shaped by men like Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Richard Perle, and Paul Wolfowitz?

To live up to its tag as a political thriller, a new for him genre, Baitz based his futuristic look at a group of Americans in the year 2030 on the ancient board game known as Chinese Friends and alternatively as Reversi or Othelllo. Its strategy is to take control of the board by outflanking your opponent until his or her options are gone and the winner controls all four corners.

Baitz's concept is interesting but the execution is too artificial. He posits that another four years of George W. Bush's policies will leave the country and the world in a mess beyond fixing. By the time the more humanistically inclined politicians regain the White House, people are unwilling to accept their remedies. And so, as the play begins, things have gone from horrible to horrendous.

The children whose birth coincided with the age of national dysfunction feel the only hope for redemption is to throw out everything that smacks of organized power. On the other hand, some of their elders, as represented by one-time humanist policy wonk named Arthur Brice (Peter Strauss), now feel that the time is ripe for the public that rejected them and their solutions to welcome them back with open arms.

Brice would also like to re-establish contact with the son Ajax (Tyler Francavilla) and, for reasons that will link his public and private story, has offered to pay a substantial sum for a tape the young man's mother made before her death. When Ajax arrives at the isolated New England cottage where Brice has been living in contemplative but comfortable exile accompanied by two companions, Brice is immediately outnumbered and in a position of having to defend himself against not only his hostile son, but the even angrier Stephan (James Latus) and Alegra (Athena Gam).

Though ultimately, and despite some snappy dialogue and numerous surprises, the two hour cat and mouse game adds up to a disappointingly go-nowhere debate, it's sure to leave your head whirling with your own what ifs. Actually, the situation that pits an older man against the younger generation's opposing views is not a conflict creating strategy for Mr. Baitz. His two much better and more polished plays, Substance of Fire and Ten Unknowns, also had an older man outnumbered by the younger generation and defending his views. As the publisher of Substance of Fire and the painter in Ten Unknowns were outmoded and flawed Chinese Friends has an out of fashion arrogant Washington insider, a man who's certain that his political vision should not remain buried in history's dustbin. Baitz's willingness to look unblinkingly at bankuptcy in both the family and the world also has precedent in his 1991 The End of the Day.

The thriller aura is established by an atmospheric opening which has the three young people pulling up at the dock of Brice's cottage in a row boat and dressed in rags that Brice archly and aptly declares makes them look like "passion play dress extras." Obediah Eaves' erie music, the ragged appearance of the visitors and the rifle wielding Brice's sarcasm help to set up the game board for the first move.

It's difficult to say much about how and if Ajax and his pals manage to outflank Brice without spoiling the overabundance of twists and turns. I can tell you though that outnumbered as he may be, Brice clearly has the edge when it comes to any evidence of charm and wit. He is also the play's most interesting character and Peter Strauss takes full advantage as he goes about preparing a gourmet meal while trading insults with Stephan, flirting mildly with Alegra and trying to woo his grudge carrying son away from the communal triumvirate that has been influenced by Brice's former colleague and eventual enemy. It's a big performance but not big enough to keep the awkward blend of Brice's private and public tragedy from coming apart at its too visible seams. Nor can it prevent the personal agendas of Stephan and Alegra from being contrived or the interchanges from coming off as shrill, non-stop polemical debating rounds.

Director Robert Egan has seen to it that Strauss is adequately supported, somewhat better than adequately so by Will McCormack who imbues Stephan with a credible sense of menace. Thanks to Santo Loquasto's handsomely equipped kitchen, Laura Bauer's costumes and Donald Holder's lighting there are no complaints about the way the production looks and sounds. The polemics, plot contrivances and at times far-fetched dialogue notwithstanding, the script also dishes up its quota of Baitzian literary allusions and often funny lines.

If Mr. Baitz's vision of a dystopian America seems too hopeless, you might want to grab a straw of hope by recalling that Ajax was a mythical Greek hero, the son of the arrogant Ileius of Locris who ended up fighting against Troy in Homer's Iliad. Maybe this or another Ajax will come forward with a less politics as usual plan for bringing about meaningful change.

The Film Societymlt
End of the Day
Mizlansky/Zilinsky or "Schmucks"
Ten Unknowns
Note: Another new Baitz play, Paris Letter, is slated for a Broadway debut next fall.


A world premiere of's new play, directed by .
Written by Jon Robin Baitz
Directed by Robert Egan
Cast: Tyler Francavilla, Will McCormack Peter Strauss and Bess Wohl
Set Design: Santo Loquasto
Costume Design: Laura Bauer
Lighting Design: Donald Holde Original Music & Sound Design: Obadiah Eaves
Fight Director: Joseph Travers
Running time:
Playwrights Horizons' Mainstage, 416 West 42nd Street 212/ 279-4200 or
Tuesdays through Fridays at 8 PM, Saturdays at 2:30 & 8 PM and Sundays at 2:30 & 7:30 PM.
Tickets are $55. Student Rush Tickets will be available for $15 (cash only, day of performance, subject to availability).
From 4/30/04 to 6/13/04; opening 5/27/04
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 5/24/04 performance
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