Interpreter of Maladies

Playwright Julia Cho gives one woman a world's worth of troubles

Woody Allen, fresh from a course in speed-reading, once claimed to have stormed through War and Peace in a fabulously efficient two hours. Later he was able to offer the following profound assessment: "It was about some Russians."

Julia Cho's 99 Histories, a world premiere from Theater Mu and Intermedia Arts, can't be faulted for moving too fast, but it does try to cram an unreasonable amount of narrative into roughly two hours. Cho, a 28-year-old rising star whose family drama The Architecture of Loss premiered this January at New York Theatre Workshop, is clearly long on intelligence and ambition. Parts of 99 Histories reveal a well-trained ear for language and rhythm, and she seems to have a genuine sympathy for her geographically, temporally, and emotionally distant characters.

All of this makes her a logical partner for Theater Mu, a national leader at producing young Asian-American playwrights. But like Jeany Park's Falling Flowers and Kiseung Rhee's Interior Designs, two of the company's 2003 productions, 99 Histories is an often well-acted and heartfelt work that suffers from some dramaturgical headaches.

Eunice (Jeany Park) was an especially prodigious child prodigy. The question wasn't whether she could be a concert cellist, but whether she could be the best concert cellist in the world. After the death of her father, a convenience-store owner shot in a holdup, the teenage Eunice channeled all her pain into music. Her playing grew deeper, more distinctive. But before she could conquer the world one Bach suite at a time, a debilitating mental illness and what I take to be carpal tunnel syndrome forced her to quit playing altogether.

That should be enough dramatic material to fill an evening at the theater. But there's more. To illustrate how this rich-with-potential play founders, let's sum up its subplots and red herrings with one prolix equation: Eunice, now mentally stable but still adrift in her post-cello-playing world, is also pregnant, which is why she has returned to suburban L.A. to live with her mom Sah-Jin (Maria Cheng, wise and subtle as usual), whose long-deceased sister had a love affair back in Korea with an American missionary named Daniel (Sean Logan), a fellow similar in aspect to Joe (Sean Logan), the not-ready-to-commit ex-cellist's ex-boyfriend and the father of her unborn child, which Eunice plans to give up for adoption, only now she's worried about passing on the hereditary disease that both she and her late aunt suffered from, which malady leads her to seek medical advice from handsome young doctor Paul (Tae-Jung Kwan, exceptionally charming and relaxed), a potential mate in the eyes of Eunice's ma despite the fact that he's already engaged. Whew.

As I hope the above parentheses indicate, this Cecilie D. Keenan-directed show includes some fine performances, and there's a casual repartee about the acting that feels genuinely familial and intimate. In addition to the in-sync six-person cast, cellist Sarah Montes provides a lovely, melancholy soundtrack. Though Park overdoes it during Act 1's closing breakdown, she's mostly in tune with her character's alienation and regret, and manages to convey a glimmer of hope as the show draws to a close. The too-few scenes between Eunice and Paul are engaging and natural, more so than the overexplanatory dialogue would seem to allow.

What Park and Kwan's pugnaciously believable exchanges indicate is that the central shortcoming here isn't with the characters, who are well conceived in theory and real-seeming in the hands of these performers. The problem lies with much of what Cho has them say, which includes a heap of expository reminiscences and bursts of awkward metaphorical fancy. After Eunice rejects Joe's proposal to shack up, the spurned lover launches into a stilted analogy comparing Eunice to Russia during the Napoleonic wars, which gets us back to War and Peace and adds another history to a play containing five or ninety-eight too many.

 
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