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|A CurtainUp Second ThoughtsReview
By Joseph Cervelli
Far East, the disappointing new play by A.R. Gurney which just opened at the Mitzi E. Newhouse at Lincoln Center was reviewed last summer by Elyse Sommer when it had its world premerie at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in the Berkshires. (see link) She aptly commented that certain aspects of this play do little to separate it from Love Is a Many Splendored Thing and From Here to Eternity. The cast that Elyse saw seemed to rise above the material. Again the same is quite true.
The one member of the Williamstown Theatre production also at Lincoln Center is Bill Smitrovich. He seems to have lost none of the pungency he initially brought to his role. It is also a pleasure to have the extraordinarily fine young actor Michael Hayden back on the theatrical scene. Mr. Hayden was dazzling as the brash Billy Bigelow in the superb Lincoln Center production of Carousel and gave a heart rendering, Tony-caliber performance in Arthur Miller's All My Sons. Here he portrays "Sparky" Watts, Lieutenant USNR, a likeable yet somewhat cocky young man from an affluent Milwaukee family stationed in Japan. He is more interested in how his naval career will look on his resume when he applies to Harvard business school when he returns than an understanding of the real reason he is in Asia. Even when his Captain played with a gentle gruffness by Mr. Smitrovich tires to explain how Indo-China will be soon a contending factor in a short time, Sparky seems oblivious.
The young officer's other interest is a young Japanese girl he has fallen in love with. It is an off stage romance for we never see her and when she is serving as waitress at the officer's bash we can only visualize her beauty from Sparky's eyes. This relationship brings Sparky into conflict with the Captain's wife Julia, very well played by Lisa Emery. She is so outraged that he has fallen in love with an Asian when there are many American girls on the base that she writes his aunt with whom she went to college. This problem in Sparky's romance also points to several with the play. It is all too obvious that Julia is herself attracted to Sparky. Her outrage about Sparky has much to do with her rage at her husband's being more interested in his naval obligations than in her exacerbated the fact that he is still enamored of a Filipino woman with whom he had a relationship with years back.
While Mr. Gurney has incorporated jingoism and racial prejudice into the play, the ire has been seen before --in the already mentioned films and also Sayonara. . Also, when Julia enters Sparky's barracks after hours and a near seduction scene takes place, it is clear that Sparky is quite willing to bed this woman. Why? Was his love for this Asian woman just a novelty and even if so why shouldn't he be incensed at her sending a letter to his family. Even though she rebuffs him, it is a scene that is far from realistic.
There is another subplot which is haphazardly thrown in. It seems that a young ensign played quite deftly by Connor Trinneer gave top secret information to a communist Japanese male who had revealing sexual pictures of them. The issue of gays in the military is briskly played out here though the repartee between Connor and Sparky seems forced. Of course, Connor is quickly removed from the service to prevent any further embarrassment. As Elyse reported in her review, the scenes with Sparky and the Captain work very well. However, the lack of briskness and insight remain a detriment . Their conversations should be more than marginally played out. Even the hints at humor are not as biting as they could be.
A number of roles, including the non-speaking servants or military personnel, are played by a single reader. Sonnie Brown does well in these multiple roles.
Thomas Lynch has created a spare but evocative set. There is a platform stage with furniture that doubles as scenes dictate and an upper tier in which the reader acts almost Kabuki fashion. The backdrop screens are an integral part of the changing scenery and the first rate lighting is by Rui-Rita who was responsible for the Williamstown production.
Daniel Sullivan, who was represented with his top-notch direction of among others Ah, Wilderness and The Sisters Rosensweig, has a genuine feel for characters and has shown he can crystallize material which can deeply affect the audience. However, Far East fails to grip us and arouse our sympathy for the characters. Instead of giving us a sense of seeing a seminal work the ring of familiarity permeates throughout.
To read the world premiere review of Far East go here
Guerney's last play, Labor Day