Despite its cast of 19, a slew of visible stagehands and dressers, and exotic Chinese costumes, Susan Kim’s stage adaptation of Amy Tan’s novel “The Joy Luck Club” has lost the essence of the book’s mother-daughter relationships and of the characters themselves. The result is a bland two-dimensional precis of Tan’s generation- and continent-gap tale rather than a dramatization of it.
“Joy Luck” plays out on Ming Cho Lee’s clean, off-white set, backed by a drop suggesting sea and sky and punctuated by a series of doorless doorways. For some scenes, particularly those set in China, bolts of brightly colored silk are unfurled across the bare stage. Numerous crowd scenes spill across it also, suggesting that director Seret Scott had to be as much a traffic cop as director. Stagehands and dressers help with onstage prop and costume changes.
At the novel’s core are its four Chinese-born mothers and their four American-born daughters, and it is here that the play falters most significantly. To begin with, the former come across as cliches of loving but nagging mothers, while the latter are equally cliched in their impatient resentment of the mothers they know so little about. The individuality of the eight leading characters is lost.
Some less-than-subtle acting is to blame as well for turning characters into caricatures. And Kim’s adaptation, though faithful to the novel, is too sketchy, with some characters appearing so briefly they are meaningless.
An original Mandarin Chinese-language production, performed in China in 1993 and ’94 as a joint project of the Long Wharf Theater and the Shanghai People’s Art Theater, was the culmination of an exchange program organized by New Haven’s Yale-China Assn., and directed by Long Wharf artistic director Arvin Brown.
The play’s English-language premiere was to have been Brown’s directorial farewell to the theater, but when Brown withdrew from the project because of illness in his family, the production’s associate director, Scott, took over.
There’s no doubt that the film of “The Joy Luck Club” was more successful than this stage version, though even the pic was less than memorable. The novel itself would seem to have the best of it.