Tuesday, May 26, 2009

American Hwangap


By Lloyd Suh. Directed by Trip Cullman. The Wild Project. (CLOSED)

Overall critics are receptive to Lloyd Suh's play about a Korean man trying to make amends with his family. Though critics say the plot is not original, they think Suh avoids the pitfalls of such a plot and think the play works largely because of the cast as directed by Tripp Cullman and Erik Flatmo's simple yet effective set. Critics don't agree on the merits of the vague ending.

CurtainUp A
(Amy Krivohlavek) Under the deft direction of Trip Cullman, this compact 90-minute production flies by, offering a vivid, intimate portrait of a family attempting to patch itself together. It helps that this stellar cast feels like a real family, with dynamic interactions that smack of real-life sibling sparring and parent-child struggling. Katigbak delivers a wonderfully wry, no-nonsense portrait of Mary, a steadfast woman with an innate understanding of her children's needs, as well as her own. She reminds her stubborn daughter of the need to "face the thing that made you. To make it see you." Saito is alternately exasperating and sympathetic as Min Suk, and his performance is particularly touching as he works to revive his relationships with his children and his ex-wife. By way of explanation, he tells his daughter about the "planned obsolescence" that has plagued his career and life:

Theatermania A
(Dan Balcazo) Suh strikes just the right balance between humor and deeply felt emotion. His dialogue not only captures what the characters express to one another, but also hint at the subtextual thoughts that they're unable to say. The playwright also sets up an effective parallel between North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's desire to reunify North and South Korea, with Chun's desire to reconnect with his family. "Many people in Korea want reunification, but so divide so many years, hope for together but philosophy so different," says Chun. In the end, while the play does not resolve all the conflicts it introduces, it does offer the possibility of reconciliation, although no guarantee that it will actually come to pass... Erik Flatmo's simple-seeming set is surprisingly versatile, and able to suggest a myriad of locations with just a few re-arranged pieces of furniture or addition of small set units. For example, a cut-out of a boat flown in while Kim and Saito sit on a tabletop ingeniously sets the scene for a father-son fishing trip. Junghyun Georgie Lee's costumes, Paul Whitaker's lighting, and Fitz Patton's sound design also all contribute to the overall effectiveness of the piece.

Gay City News A
(David Kennerley) Under the snappy direction of Trip Cullman, Suh's characterizations are intimately vivid, and the dialogue crackles. The excellent James Saito, who won an Obie Award for his role in "Durango" a couple of years ago, renders the hapless, deadbeat dad worthy of his children's buried love. Another standout is Hoon Lee as the snide, stony David, who refuses to travel from New York. When he intones, "I'd most prefer not to drop everything and just rush down for some supplication congratulation situation," it is at once chilling and amusing. He calls his younger brother "champ" and "buddy" with all the affection normally reserved for a shoeshine boy. His bottled-up rage verges on bursting at any moment. What's especially astounding is how Cullman manages to balance the comic and darker elements, never permitting one to stumble over the other. The tone shifts naturally and seamlessly -- no easy feat. In less confident hands, the goofy yet touching scene where Ralph and his father go fishing together in a tiny boat, awkwardly sharing confidences, would surely sink.

Backstage A
(Ronni Reich) Lloyd Suh's American Hwangap offers a sensitive, thought-provoking glimpse into family relationships and coming-of-age angst. The play is sharp, insightful, and neatly plotted. Suh skillfully breaks up the drama with witty and poetic reflections just beyond the scope of normal speech, and director Trip Cullman gets finely calibrated performances from the cast. David (Hoon Lee), the oldest child, is a steely toned, exaggeratedly masculine investment banker. Throughout the play, his family pleads with him to join the celebration, but Suh avoids the obvious endings, with David neither revealing himself to be just like his father nor joining the smiling family portrait.

The New York Times A-
(Ken Jaworowski) The 90-minute show — a co-production of the Play Company and the Ma-Yi Theater Company — highlights Trip Cullman’s skillful direction and his optimal use of a small space, cleverly designed by Erik Flatmo. The limited area is ideal for Mr. Suh’s work, which often places just two characters onstage at a time, leading to quiet, more personal quarrels rather than full-out family warfare. In such private disputes, Ms. Katigbak excels, conveying deep feelings with the smallest of gestures. But when the emotions run higher, the outstanding Mr. Lee simultaneously displays and conceals an undercurrent of rage. Those moments of anger prove that no matter how much a playwright loves his characters, sending them to unhappy places can be the most thrilling thing for an audience to watch.

Time Out NY A-
(Andy Propst) Director Trip Cullman’s well-calibrated staging deftly navigates the naturalistic and the fantastical qualities of the high-stakes reconciliation Suh has conceived. Recriminations are the shoot-outs here, and although some of the material may come across like John Wayne retread, it nonetheless satisfies.

Variety B+
(Marilyn Stasio) From the time of the ancient Greeks, family reunions have always been an efficient playwriting device for setting up a nice, big, messy meltdown. Curiously, Lloyd Suh pulls back from that payoff scene (by keeping a key character otherwise occupied) in "American Hwangap." Thus he withholds a definitive emotional release for his otherwise touching family drama about the return of a prodigal Korean dad to the family he left behind in Texas. Smart ensemble assembled by helmer Trip Cullman delivers the carefully detailed character work that goes into knowing how to make 'em cry after you make 'em laugh... But the confidences shared with Ralph and Mary are truths that should be shared with David, whose resistance to his father's pleas to come home for his Hwangap keeps the family from restoring itself -- a goal the playwright himself seems ambivalent about. It's all very well for David to sneer from a safe distance, on long-distance cell phone conversations with Esther. But if he let out all that anger in a face-to-face confrontation with his father, a very nice play with an ambiguous ending might have taken a more electrifying turn.

The Village Voice C
(Alexis Soloski) The play takes an unusually tender-hearted attitude toward Min Suk, never really facing him with the emotional and financial depredations his departure wrought upon his family. If Suh is reluctant to write those scenes, he overwrites others. His dialogue is effective, but the longer speeches tend toward the artificial and indulgent, as when the troubled Ralph describes his mental state as "teetering toward a very nearby precipice beneath which is untold personal misery and psychological disaster."... Suh's refusal to write the central dinner scene is formally interesting, but also somewhat faint-hearted. The play seems to require that central confrontation, but Suh dodges it. That's a pity. Having discussed the dumplings, the dduk-gook, and the frosted cake, Suh shouldn't let them go untasted. Min Suk would seem to agree: After the fete, he peers from his maple tree perch at his unhappy family and muses, "Good party."

Lighting & Sound America C-
(David Barbour) What keeps American Hwangap watchable is the fine cast, neatly directed by Tripp Cullman. Michi Barall is at times a little overwrought as Esther, but when she erupts in anger, you'll definitely pay attention. Mia Katigbak nicely captures Mary's seen-it-all attitude, and her sense of perplexity at the way her children have turned out, although it would be nice to know what she thinks of Chun's decision to flee. Peter Kim is in touch with Ralph's ingratiating side -- a good thing, since his mental illness come across more as a case of willed immaturity. Hoon Lee makes us see the vast gulf between David's smiling, anonymous small talk and the raging emotions inside. (He is, however, hard-pressed to deal with a long monologue in which he describes the night when, as a child, he spied on his parents in the bedroom.) James Saito makes Chun into a suitably woebegone figure... But, really, American Hwangap is more of a situation than a play; the facts of the story are restated rather than explored. (There is the suggestion that Mary took the lead in breaking up the family -- by refusing to return to Korea - but, once raised, this notion is quickly dropped.) The play ends on the same note of irresolution with which it began -- and not enough happens in between.

CurtainUp A 13; Theatermania A 13; Gay City News A 13; Backstage A 13; The New York Times A- 12; Time Out New York A- 12; Variety B+ 11; The Village Voice C 7; Lighting & Sound America C- 6; TOTAL: 100/9 = 11.11 (B+)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Forgot one: