As Weekend at Bernie's II so powerfully attested, nothing exhumes laughter quite like an oddly preserved corpse. In a sorta funny scene from Theater Mu's philosophical comedy Interior Designs, Andrew (Sherwin Resurreccion), a stylish 25-year-old New Yorker, and Nancy (Laurine Price), his elusive sister, cover their recently departed grandmother (Maria Cheng) with Saran wrap and stuff her in the refrigerator. They know their parents will want a traditional, open-casket Vietnamese funeral, and the only way to keep the matriarch's body reasonably fresh until the ceremony is to treat it like a big pastrami sandwich.
Interior Designs, a world premiere written by Kiseung Rhee and directed by Marcus Young, is based on pieces collected in 1998's Watermark: Vietnamese-American Poetry & Prose. The iced grandmother story is taken from one of the anthology's two offerings from Andrew Lam, a short-story writer and occasional commentator for NPR's All Things Considered. Lam has a pleasant and conversational writing tone that the play often mirrors. Rhee's play doesn't, however, match a good short-story writer's precision and brevity. It's a promising, stubbornly likable work, but also a long and muddled one.
Andrew, as bum luck would have it, has anxieties beyond those involving cadavers. He's been delaying coming out to his affluent and traditional if not exactly conservative parents. His boyfriend Scott (Adriano Sobretodo) is pressing for a shack-up that Andrew isn't ready for. His father (Kurt Mattsen, in a performance that's easygoing yet captures the character's eccentric rigidity) is possibly dying, and is definitely and annoyingly obsessive about his post-retirement interior decorating. Plus, our hero is haunted by--or clinging to--his late sister, whose death he feels responsible for. In all matters, Andrew is doggedly resistant to change, even when the status quo obviously torments him.
Andrew's recalcitrance is probably the overriding theme of Rhee's play, though you might not catch that fact on first glance. The coming-out story is at least initially presented as the play's main focus, and its development is emblematic of the work's shortcomings. Exacerbating Andrew's fears about revealing his gayness is his parents' persistent demands for grandchildren, the dated implication being that his homosexuality absolutely precludes the prospect of grandchildren. Only midway through Act 2 does Scott suggest that grandchildren aren't out of the question, as if the fresh concept of gay adoption had been whispered during intermission. We then learn that Andrew doesn't want to be a father, at least not at age 25.
Reasonable enough, but that's a whole other issue, and one that isn't much explored. It's a problem that's recurrent in the play, in which problems are discarded, replaced, and altogether strewn about the room as if in imitation of the "before" picture in an interior designer's portfolio.
Even if you haven't read Franz Kafka's unfinished novel The Trial (perhaps you were watching Weekend at Bernie's II), you might be familiar with its premise. This is the one in which, on an otherwise typical morning, two cloddish warders show up at Joseph K.'s apartment and arrest him. He isn't accused of a specific crime and the implications of his arrest, on the surface at least, are opaque. He's free to report to work at the large bank where he is chief clerk and "rapidly becoming a rival even to the Assistant Manager." He can do pretty much whatever he wants--except learn the details of his case. Everyone he presses for info is too unimportant to know anything, and the higher-ups are inaccessible and mysterious.
K. nevertheless clings to the hope that there is an orderly, logical route to his exoneration, and much of the book's humor lies in his haughty propriety in the face of an absurd and impossible battle. Red Eye's uneven staging of The Trial (following from a 1970 adaptation by British playwright, actor, and director Steven Berkoff) is respectful of the original text's mystery. It doesn't quite get Kafka's arid wit, but it hints at its density. Though the story can be read as a disturbingly prophetic vision of an individual's destruction by a totalitarian bureaucracy, it can just as fruitfully be seen as a study of a hopelessly conventional man's delusional nightmare, in which his persecution is as fantastic as his heroics and romantic conquests. Wisely, Red Eye has given the work a light-handed interpretation that leaves room for these and other readings.
Alexander Julian Gulck plays K. with such a slurry timorousness as to flirt with the cardinal acting sin of inaudibility. Gulck is often charming as the hero, but he's perhaps too much the innocent. He seems to be depicting how K. would like to be seen rather than how K. might actually be--a clueless man of not inconsiderable vanity.
If Gulck's leading man could sometimes use a bit of bulking up, Robert-Bruce Brake's overweening take on Huld, K.'s sunglasses-wearing lawyer, could benefit from pectoral-reduction surgery. Dressed in a floor-length overcoat that's simultaneously shabby and regal--a good match for the low-ranking lawyer's unearned self-importance--the actor has a presence that fills the stage, but to the point of distraction. He delivers his lines with a frequently tone-deaf bravado, and a number of important thematic passages get lost in the fog.
Ultimately, even Huld can't completely shadow some of Gary L. Johnson and Liz Josheff's surreal sets and design. In a plaintive scene set in a cathedral, the church is evoked by a cool slide collage, the bold colors penetrating the scene's literal and emotional darkness. Throughout the show, a bunch of wheeled panels rotate to set scenes, and in one striking tableau, a court painter shows off his canvases, depicted here by actors posing behind lit scrims.
Such memorable moments, however, may be the exception in Steve Busa's staging, as the show too often grabs at a titter when it could get a belly laugh, or steals a shrug when it needs a shiver. By the end, one has begun to wonder if the admirable catholicism of Red Eye's interpretation is not sometimes agnostic wishy-washiness in disguise.
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