The Stoppardian play of ideas is a wonderful thing when done well. But not everyone has the ability to juggle human interest, narrative intrigue, intellectual themes and wit quite so readily — which is why so few valid points of comparison exist in the century stretching from Shaw to Kushner. Rising talent Naomi Iizuka’s new “36 Views,” a Berkeley Rep-Public Theater co-production debuting at the former, demonstrates the perils of imitating a too-rare breed.
Wearing its cleverness on its sleeve, this brittle meditation on art and culture as free-trade commodities is as self-conscious as it is busy. Result is an evening no more subtle — or inviting — than a series of authorial flashcards. Mark Wing-Davey’s cartwheel-spinning production only underlines the lack of an organic center here.
It’s a forgivable overreach for Iizuka, whose recent plays for the Bay Area’s much smaller Campo Santo (“Polaroid Stories,” “The Language of Angels”) wedded equal conceptual ambition to far more intimate, emotionally charged drama. In a sense, “36 Views” matches form to content — this is a play about greed and fraudulence among the most rarefied echelons of private art collecting. But its archly instructive tone is too heavy-handed to be enjoyed as satire, while the shrilly drawn (and, largely, played) characters repel even vicarious engagement.
The very model of a modern British colonialist, Darius Wheeler (Bill Camp; Matt McKenzie takes over the role Oct. 16) is a global artifact dealer who specializes in rare antique Orientalia. He brags about infiltrating political hot spots to carry off antiquities, and his taste in women appears similarly exotic and conquest-oriented. Hosting an artist’s cocktail reception, he lays siege to willowy Setsuko Hearn (Liana Pai), an Asian art expert who has little interest in being geisha-for-a-night. But she grows less remote when it appears Darius has stumbled upon a remarkable find: an ancient “pillow book” that, if genuine, could alter the face of Japanese literary history.
Trouble is, this discovery is something of a hoax — one invented in a moment’s embarrassment by Wheeler’s assistant, John (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), a brilliant scholar and multilinguist who’d been penning the faux journal as his own private exercise. Before he can come clean, the rumor has run like wildfire through academic and collectors’ channels, with visions of heady financial reward bewitching the none-too-ethical Darius.
Latter is simultaneously drawn into a related intrigue by old-school “adventuress” type Elizabeth (Rebecca Wisocky), who offers huge payoff for the smuggling of a Southeast Asian national treasure into a mysterious, rich buyer’s hands. Variably complicit figures on the periphery of these Graham Greene-like intrigues are John’s anarcho-punk painter/restorationist friend Claire (Elaine Tse) and Professor Matthiassen (Peter Donat), a stock dithering ivory-tower type.
That they’re all being set up for a series of well-deserved falls is no surprise, since Iizuka constantly comments upon and exposes the hypocrisies on tap. Indeed, “36 Views” is at once too complicated and too obvious, its incessant authorial point-jabbing exacerbated by staging that sprays glitter on an already over-gilded lily. Brit director Wing-Davey can shine a diamond-cut work to brilliance, but simplicity isn’t his strong suit. He doesn’t flatter this cluttered work by overwhelming it with a full artillery of visual and aural bombast.
The actors appear visibly discomforted by the level of inorganic stylization thrust upon them. It’s understandable they’d be unable to make this circle of caricatured, cannibalizing sharks palatable. Less so, however, is inability of several thesps here to nail even their most platter-handed laugh lines. Significant recasting is in order before “36 Views” resurfaces at the Public or elsewhere.
The show’s design contributions are all first-rate, but, like the evening as a whole, they might have achieved much more by rather less.