Tackling themes of sexual obsession, betrayal and culture clash, “Ikebana” opens with a lofty, poetic tone that immediately announces, “This is a work of art!’ (Andrei Both’s enchanting set and Mitch Greenhill’s hypnotically authentic Japanese music underline this intention.) But despite its aspirations and some intriguing early scenes, the play (in its world premiere at the Pasadena Playhouse) dwindles down to little more than an Asian soap opera about two nice girls trying to find themselves.
Set in 1957 Tokyo, Velina Hasu Houston’s script begins with a cast of promising characters. Ayame (June Angela) is a dutiful daughter who submits to the wishes of her cold, domineering father Itamura (Dana Lee). Itamura is anxious to marry Ayame off, and with this in mind he invites two young doctors to dinner: the combative Kitayama (Francisco Viana) and the ambitious Nakamura (Gedde Watanabe), who desperately needs money and a job and is willing to marry Ayame to get them.
Tension mounts with the presence of the charismatic Hanako (Lina Patel), whom Itamura has hired as a maid. At first it seems that the men — and even the repressed daughter — are going to be consumed, then destroyed by their passion for this sensuous, mysterious servant.
Then, unaccountably, the focus shifts. The doctors move into the background, the daughter becomes a less vital presence, and the forbidding father seizes center stage. This is a major problem, as we care more about the quartet of young people.
The characters in this tale of sexual hunger rebound too quickly from their obsessions. Kitayama loves Hanako but hardly puts up a fight when she rejects him. Ayame is attracted to Nakamura, until her interest becomes a minor issue.
Worse, the characters don’t react logically. Ayame watches her father rape the maid and takes it all in stride. Immediately afterward, she’s confronted with the news that she isn’t even his daughter — her father was really the family gardener. Ayame’s response is to leave home and break into a joyous dance of liberation. To be battered with these brutal facts and then to spin rhapsodically around, unscarred and free of trauma, is ludicrous.
Despite the inconsistencies of the plot and dialogue more suited to Tony Robbins than to serious drama (“Did you ever really love me?” “It’s me I’m trying to learn to love”), the actors still hold audience interest. Angela shows the strength behind her submissive demeanor and Patel is bold and seductive as Hanako. Watanabe is particularly outstanding as the man willing to sell himself for position, and Viana energizes a thinly written role.
Lee is amusing when he fantasizes about Marilyn Monroe, but goes overboard in the more melodramatic sequences. Author Houston and director Shirley Jo Finney evidently felt that Lee’s Itamura was a figure of genuine tragedy, a Japanese Willy Loman. But the dimensions are missing. Itamura weeps for himself, but suffers no guilt over his treatment of others, so we never feel his pain.