NEW YORK–Japanese investment in Broadway has increased exponentially in the last few years. So it’s not surprising to see a new play tackling the thorny social and political issues raised by Japanese incursions into Western culture. What’s surprising is how lifelessly those issues are rendered by Australian playwright Jill Shearer in “Shimada.” It’s the season’s biggest bore.
The title character is a sadistic guard in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in Burma who gleefully tortures two friends, Clive (Robert Joy) and Eric (Ben Gazzara), near the end of World War II.
Shimada may also be acquisitive businessman Toshio Uchiyama, who arrives half a century later in the small Australian town where Eric and Clive’s widow, Sharyn (Ellen Burstyn), are struggling to salvage their bicycle factory. As “plastics” was to “The Graduate,” so “dirt bikes” is to “Shimada.”
Eric’s conviction that Shimada and Uchiyama are one and the same is reinforced by the fact that both are played by Mako, who does a fine Jekyll-and-Hyde turn as Shimada in the flashbacks and Uchiyama in the present.
Despite some dreamy, pseudo-Kabuki interludes that are laughable, this 1987 Melbourne hit is standard issue.
Sharyn sees the Japanese investment as a lifeline they cannot afford to ignore. Clive mortgages his house and rallies the workers to save the factory from the clutches of outsiders. Predictably, it doesn’t turn out well for any of them.
What went wrong with the production? Start with a director evidently incapable of getting his stars into the same constellation.
If the play were any better, Gazzara’s performance might have been memorable for its cocksure badness. He blusters, splutters, struts and bellows with Crummles-like abandon. But it’s not Shakespeare he’s butchering, only a second-rate melodrama, so the performance doesn’t quite reach the epic dimensions it aims for.
Burstyn fails from the opposite end, as her one-note earnestness grates virtually from the outset.
As a worker in the factory and Clive’s earthy ally, Estelle Parsons tramps around in hiking boots, cutoffs and red headband. (Smaller roles are better played — particularly Joy, who doubles as the dead dad and his now-grown son, and Tracy Sallows as another member of the factory family.)
Director Simon Phillips hasn’t coaxed anything like a consistent style from this company. He’s equally inept at integrating the scenes in the present and the flashbacks, which are underscored with throbbing music in case you miss the point.
Tony Straiges’ handsome set, a louvered, bleached structure, is too big and open to focus the events of the play, though Richard Nelson’s apt, airy lighting is pleasant.
Judy Dearing dresses Gazzara in a safari outfit that makes the performance seem even more false; the rest of the costumes are fine.
Ultimately, however, the failure is the playwright’s. “Shimada” presents a timely scenario without ever really exploring it. Americans and Japanese searching for insight into current relations between us are advised to look elsewhere.