A hodgepodge of half-hearted jokes, unfinished thoughts, and self-indulgent detours, Charles L. Mee’s “The Mail Order Bride” is most notable for its remarkable lack of craft. Ostensibly, Mee’s script draws inspiration from Moliere’s “The Imaginary Invalid,” which is why Resonance Ensemble is producing both shows in rep. But while “Bride” borrows a few plot points from its predecessor — and cribs from several other classic works — it never approaches the level of great comedy.
Set in modern-day Brooklyn, the play follows Argan (John Henry Cox), an old man who tries to recapture youth by buying an Asian bride. Unsurprisingly, June (Sue Jean Kim) is less attracted to her graying patron than to dashing young wedding planner Horner (Peter McCain), who pretends to be castrated in order to woo her without raising suspicion.
That’s a classic comic set-up, with the castrato subplot taken directly from William Wycherly’s “The Country Wife.” However, Mee diffuses it by telling us that June isn’t actually betrothed to Argan. She’s just there for an interview and is free to dump him if she wants.
This means Argan has no power, so there’s no tension in watching June try to wriggle away from him. There’s also no reason for Horner to pretend he’s a eunuch, which may be why Mee drops that thread altogether by the final scene.
The lack of conflict might explain why the cast remains mechanical. Every perf feels mapped out in advance, so that thesps share no chemistry as they mark through blocking and lines. Nor can they sell Mee’s most bizarre choices. Several times, for instance, he lets the cast break into song, turning lyrical duties over to Travis Kramer. But since few in the ensemble have musical theater backgrounds, the numbers are painfully out-of-tune.
The songs add no symbolic weight. An arrhythmic rap number about how everyone is attracted to June, women included, even borders on offensive. It involves June whirling nunchucks while a group of women chant, “Ain’t no party like a bulldagga party.”
Lacking context and clarity, the song makes grotesque caricatures out of hip-hop, lesbians and Asian culture. Later stabs at political satire, like the appearance of a Russian bride broker who considers his business the best form of capitalism, are too simplistic to make the stereotypes seem knowing or subversive.
Callousness was surely not the intention, which is why the play needs clarity. Director Eric Parness might have helped, but his staging rests on pratfalls and fussy stage business. It’s fidgety work, mirroring the chaos of the writing.