Middle Brother, Eric Sharp's exploration of Korean roots, is a mess of a play. Sharp's ideas bounce around the Southern Theater stage, never combining into a cohesive whole.
A game cast (including playwright Sharp) makes the best of the meal on offer, aided by clever direction and stage design.
Middle Brother centers on Billy, a Korean adoptee who travels back to his country of origin after two decades surrounded by corn fields, pigs, and white people in Iowa. His plan is to connect with his original home, and hopefully find his birth family. After a year, Billy is ready to head back home to the U.S., having made only some inroads into the culture and language.
At this point, however, he does find a connection to his family: an older brother. This connection, however, doesn't provide everything Billy wants to know. Even after probing for information, the answer as to why he was put up for adoption is still up in the air.
As the play unfolds, clarity falls further and further away. It is replaced by a mix of the reality of Billy's aching loneliness and need to connect with fantasies about what his origins truly are.
To muddy the waters even more, there are subplots that don't manage to travel very far, such as one involving Billy's younger brother. Gabe is another Korean adoptee who seems content to wander through his young life. His story sits nervously in the narrative, as if Sharp had something to say with the character but it never quite came into focus.
Sharp the performer is stronger here than Sharp the playwright. His character is loaded with flaws, but the endearing performance puts us clearly on Billy's side throughout the tale. The other five actors make up a Korean chorus, taking on different roles or offering commentary on Billy's plight or the state of the story itself.
Director Robert Rosen, a former Theatre de la Jeune Lune conspirator, gives the six-actor company a wonderful playground, aided by the strong work by scenic designer John Francis Bueche. It's a playful setup, with pieces of the set serving as airplanes, apartments, and Korean saunas depending on the need.
Middle Brother is a play I desperately wanted to like. Its heart is huge, and Sharp has poured plenty of himself into the work. If it could stay out of its own way, Middle Brother has the potential to not only illuminate a piece of world and personal history, but provide plenty of humor and emotional heft as well.
IF YOU GO:
Middle Brother Through September 28 The Southern Theater 1420 Washington Ave., Minneapolis $22 For tickets and more information, call 651.789.1012 or visit online.