Julia Cho is a talented young playwright who deserves better than indulgent workshop productions that fail to help her develop her voice, focus her vision and shape her material into a stageworthy theatrical style. After going through more than a half-dozen developmental workshops (at New York Theater Workshop, the Mark Taper Forum and Chi’s Goodman, among others), this coming-of-age play emerges in rough and ragged form, its promise still unrealized.
It’s hard to know exactly what Cho (“The Architecture of Loss”) wants to say in this diffuse play about an Asian teenager who lives with her spacey mother and spineless uncle in a desert town somewhere in BFE (an acronym for “Butt-Fuck Egypt” — connoting “the back of beyond”). Fourteen-year-old Panny (Olivia Oguma) is clearly the centerpiece of the story. But she is an inconsistent narrator and is missing in action from so many scenes that her character development lacks a smooth arc.
Cho gives Panny the requisite teen angst about being too-fat-too-ugly-too-clumsy to make it through her freshman year of high school with her ego intact. To these adolescent agonies is added the extra anxiety of being too Asian to score the white boy with whom she’s been carrying on a phone flirtation. At least the poor child doesn’t have to worry about the serial killer (a Ted Bundy-esque charmer in Scott Hudson’s smart perf) prowling the desert landscape raping and killing pretty, popular girls with naturally blond hair and perfect complexions. Or does she?
Oguma plays Panny with a sweet awkwardness that gently exposes the ignorance of her youth while still respecting her intelligence. (In Jayde Chabot’s girlish outfits, she even looks the part of a child who isn’t quite ready to claim the rights — and fashion sense — of a woman in bud.) But despite her pivotal role, Panny is surprisingly inarticulate at times when she should be finding her voice.
In an exchange of correspondence with a Korean pen pal named Hae-Yoon, Panny is dismissive and evasive, while Hae-Yoon (in a sparkling comic perf from Sue Jean Kim) bubbles over with enthusiasm for all the cheap consumer trappings she takes for authentic Americana. Every letter not sent to Hae-Yoon is a missed opportunity for Panny to express her own thoughts on the national religion that worships beauty.
In the same way, every domestic scene without Panny is another lost chance for her to examine her adolescent confusions in a broader context. There are many such scenes in the play — between Panny’s mother, Isabel (Kate Rigg), and uncle Lefty (James Saito); between Lefty and his girlfriend Evvie (Karen Kandel); between Isabel and the pizza delivery guy. Not only do they not impact directly on Panny’s developmental education, but in Gordon Edelstein’s overly literal production, they are so drawn out and self-consciously performed that they slow down the momentum of the real action — which, however obliquely referenced in Cho’s text, is Panny’s journey to self-awareness.
If stripped down, cleaned up and refocused on a more articulate Panny, “BFE” might yet take this kid where she needs to go. On the other hand, one really hesitates to suggest yet another workshop.