Alice Tuan’s new play ”Ikebana,” debuting at L.A.’s venerable East West Players, is full of fearless little oddities. The play takes its title from the Japanese art of flower arranging, but it concerns itself with a Chinese-American family, and a very disarranged one at that. Bold both in its dramatic reach and stylistic gambits, ”Ikebana” isn’t afraid of making a mess, and if its sprawling adventurousness often trips it up, Tuan’s is still a spirited and engaging new voice.
The clashing needs of three generations of a family are at the center of the play. Grandma Rose (Beulah Quo) is the family matriarch, both respected despite her peremptory rudeness and protected from secrets that her family fears would aggravate her ailing heart. Chief among these is the illness of her daughter Ester (Emily Kuroda), whose zeal for her growing businesses is little abated by the knowledge that she’s dying of cancer.
Ester shares with her sister Lily (Natsuko Ohama) the sad circumstance of an absent husband, although Ester’s died mysteriously while Lily’s simply disappeared one day. Lily takes solace in her Christianity, which sets her apart both from both the cynical Ester and the matter-of-fact Rose.
In the course of the play, more secrets will be supplied by the third generation, in the persons of Lily’s brash daughter Violet (Lauren Tom), an aspiring singer who’s impatient with the pull of family feelings at odds with the rootless freedom that being truly American seems to allow; her brooding sister Iris (Deborah Nishimura), a budding playwright; and Ester’s son Ellison (John Cho), handsome, young and gay.
Onto this full complement of domestic comedy complications are piled some weighty if sketchily explored musings about secrets and lies (”How can you be true to the world when your family lies?”), life, death, race and religion.
And it’s all tied somewhat tangentially to the play’s flower-arranging motif. Each of the play’s 15 scenes is named for a particular arrangement (”Clouds,” ”Midsummer Sun,” ”Living Contrast”), and while none feels unartfully shoehorned into the play, there is little this scheme adds by way of illumination. Iris’ speech that touches most thoroughly on the topic — “I work from my root, you from your flower,” she says to Violet — is among the play’s few awkward, faux-poetic passages.
Other stylized touches succeed more often than they fail, thanks in part to director Lisa Peterson’s experience with the work of other stylistic adventurers, Tony Kushner chief among them. The appearance of a specter that may be Ester’s deceased husband is brought off with aplomb, as is Ester’s post-death dance number, but the play-within-a-play conceit that sees Iris interrupting the action to coach the actors on more than one occasion breaks both the play’s rhythm and its mildly exotic spell; it adds nothing, and takes away a fair piece of the play’s natural charm. Peterson is to be credited for going boldly where the playwright leads, but that can also be a fault.
It’s really her work with the actors that’s most effective. Tom has the play’s choicest part as the chicly neurotic, tough-talking Violet (”I’m a Chink, not a Jap,” she jibes early on). She’s a wonderful comedienne, with crackerjack timing, particularly in her scenes with Bo, a smooth black man (played with magnetic charm by Reg E. Cathey) whose marriage to Violet is the revelation that will shatter the family’s spell of secrecy.
Quo’s Grandma Rose also gets good comic mileage out of her role, the mildly stereotypical cantankerous old woman. As the dying Ester, Kuroda plays with simplicity and truth, undercutting the pathos of her part with Ester’s nice frankness. Only Ping Wu in the underwritten part of Uncle Woodman, and Nishimura as Iris — also vaguely conceived, perhaps because she’s the author’s stand-in — remain somewhat stiff interpretations.
For all its complex charms, ”Ikebana” could use some pruning — as with flower arrangements, in drama less is often more. A tighter focus on the play’s core concerns — the poison that secrets kept too long can spread in a family, the strains that straddling cultures can put on people — would enhance that play. And some plot lines might be jettisoned. The playwright character Iris, in fact, could exit gracefully, and take that play-within-a-play bit with her.