Bad plays happen to good playwrights more often than we care to admit, but Jon Robin Baitz’s “Chinese Friends” sets the current standard in this ignominious sweepstakes. It is surely the worst play by the best playwright in recent memory. Attempting to use a futuristic hostage scenario to anatomize the potentially disastrous consequences of current U.S. political policy, Baitz has concocted a talky farrago of a play, as dramatically inert as it is polemically muddled.
In previous works, Baitz has proven to be the rare American playwright who can persuasively use the stage as a forum for discussions of morality and ethics. It’s disheartening to see him fail so spectacularly to find a cogent dramatic form for the ideas lurking somewhere in the swamp of “Chinese Friends.”
The play is clearly inspired by Baitz’s anger at current trends in American politics; jibes aimed squarely at the current occupant(s) of the White House are slapped all over the dialogue like angry Post-It notes. But these eloquently phrased denunciations of U.S. arrogance and imperialism would be more comfortably contained in an op-ed piece or two.
As it is, Baitz’s passionate desire to indict the policies currently holding sway in Washington seems to have left him recklessly indifferent to the nuts-and-bolts necessities of playwriting, little things like the creation of credibly human characters and dramatically plausible situations. By these crucial standards, “Chinese Friends” is eye-glazingly ineffective.
The play is set in the year 2030, on a New England island compound inhabited by Arthur Brice (Peter Strauss), a former professor and politico living in comfortable, self-imposed exile from the decaying America that lies across the water. Washing up on his shores one day is his estranged college-dropout son Ajax (Tyler Francavilla), accompanied by two friends who share his free-thinking, free-loving ways. They’re a new breed: hippie nihilists.
It’s not long before the generation gap is sparking feisty debates about the state of the country that clue us in to both Brice’s past and Baitz’s vision of America’s immediate future. Back in ’08, Brice was a policy adviser to an administration that tried but failed to reverse the “arrogant policies” of prior presidents “that have caused so much human suffering.” Their failure left the “dynasty of cowboys and corporate criminals” in charge, and the world is now in ruins: “The United Nations has collapsed, Social Security is gone, people are fighting wars over clean water … .”
Brice, desperate for an audience after years in the political wilderness, treats the kids to long disquisitions on his theories: “Martial strength is not true strength. Real strength is respecting the hearts and minds and differences of other cultures … It’s never using concepts like crusade and evil to describe the other … Only the weak believe in isolationism and have xenophobic passion for national borders.” (Are you getting all this down, Condi?)
But the kids have their own agendas, beginning with the general (“Political acts mean nothing … . Fucking is the only thing left”) and extending to the alarmingly specific (“To be clean, to wash up too much and clean your clothes too much is to dissemble … ’cause beneath all that clean is a lot of filth. Moral, political filth.”).
The ringleader spouting much of this combative philosophy is Stephan (Will McCormack), who ups the ante by revealing he’s really the son of Brice’s former ideological ally, and he’s looking for some answers about Brice’s betrayal of his father. It turns out Ajax wants to clean up a few little mysteries, too, like the circumstances surrounding his mother’s death in a car accident.
And the boys’ female companion isn’t just along for the joyride, either: She’s the daughter of a minister who was “disappeared” by the ’08 administration when he turned on them, and she’s looking for her own answers. When he proves resistant to their entreaties, Brice is handcuffed to a chair, as the new generation starts playing its own game of political hardball.
Far-fetched though the play’s Chinese-box plotting is — let’s not even bother with the contrivance that has the answer to all questions conveniently located on recordings Brice made back in the day — it would not be the tedious morass of talk it is if Baitz had peopled it with credible characters. But like his contemporaries Tony Kushner and Richard Greenberg, playwrights with similarly agile minds and analytical bents, Baitz sometimes displays a maddening tendency to imbue all his characters with an unnatural eloquence that can rob them of a human pulse.
This penchant runs rampant here: Much of the dialogue has the dry, lifeless sound of articulate speechifying; long stretches sound like erotica for policy wonks. Although they occasionally pepper their talk with slang, these slacker youngsters can easily match Brice’s rhetorical flights, leaving one to conclude that while the country may be on the verge of anarchy, the institutes of higher education are in curiously robust shape.
It’s tempting to give director Robert Egan and his cast a free pass, but it’s also possible that a more natural, intuitive approach to Baitz’s language could provide some sort of authentic human contouring.
Unfortunately, the actors are uniformly unable to season the writing’s pontifical flavor. Poor Strauss, the ex-TV star returning to the New York stage after a long absence, probably fares worst. He exhibits far more actorly warmth and suppleness in his TV commercials for Miracle-Gro.
In the end, it’s oddly hard to discern even the general outlines of Baitz’s ambitions here. The characters’ ideological positions get increasingly lost amid the strange revolutions of the twisty plotting (the title derives from a board game).
Baitz may be trying to explore the ways that personal morality inevitably taints political policy. Or he may be trying to write a damning indictment of the cynical indifference to civic culture that is sapping the moral fiber of the country’s younger generations. It hardly makes a difference, because the play’s impact is nil; it’s best described, to borrow one of the more credible lines from one of those po-mo hippies, as “just a bunch of white people hanging around talking.”