For all the variety of theater art produced in New York, there are some things you don’t see a whole lot of — like an Asian-American theater company that develops and showcases plays by Asian-American playwrights addressing specifically Asian-American themes. For that reason alone, the aesthetic mission and the professional chops of the Pan Asian Repertory Theater, now in its 30th season under the direction of Tisa Chang, are admirable. With its sensitive portrayal of an interracial couple at a crossroads in their long married life, this expertly executed production of Philip Kan Gotanda’s “Yohen” is typical of the company’s solid work.
Gotanda is the kind of writer who likes to spell everything out, and Seret Scott’s helming provides the detailed performances and finicky stagecraft his talky plays thrive on.
Through the strategic placement of fabric-covered dividers, set designer Charlie Corcoran carves out an intimate playing space in the rotunda of the landmark Church of St. Paul & St. Andrew for the modest California living room, circa 1986, where an ex-GI and his Japanese wife act out the end of their marriage.
Kazuko Oguma keeps the lights soft and low, suitably toned to the limited level of enlightenment. And the odd pieces of Yohen pottery (misshapen kiln “accidents” prized by collectors) supplied by Peter Callas make a strong visual metaphor for a relationship that at times seems perfect — and at other times seems all wrong.
Ultimately, though, one’s patience for Gotanda’s interminable dissection of the marriage of a gruff black soldier and his refined Japanese wife hangs on the persuasive powers of the two performers in this Strindbergian marital dance.
Dian Kobayashi, who originated the role of Sumi in a previous production at A.C.T. in San Francisco, brings considerable feeling to the confused emotions of a loyal wife who quits her hated secretarial job and discovers the existence of a big, wide world of opportunity outside home and office.
Unfortunately, her husband, James, a big strapping galoot in David Fonteno’s robust and surprisingly tender performance, hasn’t a clue what she’s going on about, with her pottery classes and college courses and nagging lectures. He’s stunned when she throws him out of the house and demands that he formally court her — date by date.
James may be as thick as a plank, but there is no question that he adores his wife of 37 years, and it is heartbreaking to watch him struggle to give up drinking and shape up. It is even sadder to see how little credit she gives this ex-boxer for sobering up and finding real purpose in mentoring delinquent boys.
“That’s not what I want for you,” Sumi says, petulantly, when he proudly tells her about training his best protege for the Golden Gloves. She doesn’t even listen when James offers an eloquent, if ungrammatical, explanation of the difference between changing one’s bad habits and obliterating one’s essential character.
The question, of course, is how these two ever made it through 37 years of marriage without examining the fundamental issues that have alternately joined and divided them for so long. Gotanda would have us believe they never even discussed the defining issues of race and heritage and how the strain of being an interracial couple in postwar Japan and America made them outcasts in both countries.
The playwright means to make up for their unaccountable silence by dragging it all out on the carpet now. But the recriminations over whether her family dissed him for being black or whether he hated her for not giving him children feel entirely contrived in the play’s supposedly realistic context.
While it may have taken them 37 years to find their voices, they manage to lose their wits in little over an hour.