When form and content go off on different tangents, you can say goodbye to a coherent production. Julia Cho's new play is essentially a domestic drama about a fractured family that reunites under trying circumstances. But its realistic themes -- loss and longing, shame and guilt, healing and redemption -- are ill-served.

When form and content go off on different tangents, you can say goodbye to a coherent production. Although set in the arid and vaguely sinister landscape of the Arizona desert, Julia Cho’s new play is essentially a domestic drama about a fractured family that reunites under trying circumstances. But its realistic themes — loss and longing, shame and guilt, healing and redemption — are ill-served by script’s labored symbolism of alienation and a mannered production that inflates the self-conscious artiness.

There’s sand on the floor of Riccardo Hernandez’s bleached-out set, so you know the characters are not only stuck in the desert but also sunk in existential misery.

Greg (Victor Slezak), the prodigal dad of this dreary household, shows up unexpectedly after an absence of 14 years spent nursing his guilt in “halfway houses, rehab programs, jobs and non-jobs.” Attempting a reunion with the family he abandoned, this ex-military man tries to tell his Korean wife, Catherine (Mia Katigbak), that his unwelcome return is his last chance “to make amends … to heal this family.”

But Catherine is having none of it. Unloading bitter recriminations on her wayward husband, she paints a grim picture of her lonely life since he’s been gone. Flashbacks of unrelenting bleakness show her caring for her selfish father, avoiding friendships with the “frumpy” women in town, growing apart from her angry daughter and mourning the loss of her only son, who disappeared into the desert when he was 8 years old. Brushing aside Greg’s pain at hearing this shocking news, she snaps: “If you wanted us safe, then you should’ve stayed.”

Cho’s obvious intention is to examine the small fissures in human relationships that, when neglected, widen into the vast emotional gulfs that separate the members of a broken family. To this end, she has come up with a stage idiom of broken sentences, disjointed exchanges and unfinished thoughts. While expressive of the characters’ alienation, the style is itself alienating because the language is too oblique and the action too evasive to sustain a dramatic scene. Greg and Catherine belabor the issues that divide them — his drinking, her dependency, his tendency to walk away from a problem, hers to suffer in silence — without really communicating. They talk, but they don’t touch.

Perversely, Chay Yew’s direction makes sure the characters keep their emotional distance. Engulfed by the sand-dune walls of the monochromatic set, wilting under the soporific lighting, constrained by costumes too dark and tight for desert temps of 119 degrees, the actors playing Greg, Catherine and Catherine’s irascible old man avoid eye contact and affect a monotonous delivery in whispered tones devoid of inflection. While the intent may be to illustrate these characters’ emotionally stifled lives, it seems unkind to suffocate the audience as well.

The younger thesps fare somewhat better. As the disillusioned daughter who yearns for the sudden wild rainstorm that will bring life to the desert, Angel Desai is allowed to show a little spirit. Jason Lew also slips the leash playing a teen hitchhiker who shares a fateful ride with Greg. The lean and wiry actor gives a menacing edge to this youthful road warrior who hustles sex-starved men for a precarious living. Or maybe the kid is just scared. The nice thing about Lew’s performance is that it isn’t predictable and it isn’t depressing — a virtue in this downbeat production.

The Architecture of Loss

New York Theater Workshop; 77 seats; $20

Production

A New York Theater Workshop presentation of a play in one act by Julia Cho. Directed by Chay Yew

Creative

Sets, Riccardo Hernandez; costumes, Linda Cho; lighting, Mary Louise Geiger; sound, Jill B.C. Du Boff; production stage manager, Timothy R. Semon. Opened Jan. 11, 2004. Reviewed Jan. 9. Running time: 1 HOUR, 30 MIN

Cast

Carmie - Angel Desai Catherine - Mia Katigbak Jay - Jason Lew Richard - Will Marchetti Tim - Matthew Saldivar Greg - Victor Slezak Rob, the Boy - Eric Wippo

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