As TV sitcom credits constantly prove, it is possible to write weekly 30-minute laffers by committee. The uneven East West Players legiter “The Nisei Widows Club” shows it’s not so easy for a writing group to pull off situation comedy for nearly two hours onstage. EWP artistic director Tim Dang (who also helms) and company members Denise Iketani and Marilyn Tokuda together have fashioned a loving but uneventful two-act comedy focused on the social machinations of six combative but interdependent older women. Though the program notes proclaim the writers’ desire to “pay tribute to the Nisei women who have contributed so much to the Asian Pacific American community,” the only real humor in the production is supplied by the comical interjections of three men: Sab Shimono, Michael Yama and Robert Isaac Lee.
Set in the modern-day Gardena home of staunchly resilient Sumi (Tokayo Fischer), the action centers on the weekly meetings of the Nisei Widows Club. The club is composed of Nisei women (second-generation Japanese Americans) who were interned as children in the American relocation camps during World War II, and eventually moved on to achieve some modicum of the American dream.
As club leader, Sumi is inflexibly opposed when her friend Betty (June Kyoko Lu) wants to nominate recent widower Tak (Shimono) for membership. It is not only that Sumi opposes having men in the organization; it appears she holds a grudge against Tak dating back to when they were in high school. It doesn’t help Sumi’s mental state when she starts to see visions of her dead husband, Shig (Yama), who acts as a kind of ghostly one-person Chorus throughout the play.
Dang is never able to establish an easy rapport among the women. The sarcastic interjections of loud-mouth Tomi (Jeanne Sakata) come off more as harangues than comical one-liners, while Hana (Emily Kuroda) is given little to do. Club members Michiko (Irene Sanaye Furukawa), Fumiko (Donna Kimura) and Masako (Annabelle M. Lee) often are inaudible and indistinguishable.
Much of the problem is in the writing. There are too many plot shifts that remain underdeveloped and arbitrary, including the club’s concern about raising money for a planned D.C. trip, Tomi’s ongoing mistaken suspicion that Sumi and Betty are lesbians, and recurring unfinished business between Shig and Sumi. There are moments when the production hits its mark, but they invariably involve the men.
The comical highlight of the show is the second-act opening scene featuring Tak, dressed to the hilt as a heavily painted geisha fortuneteller, who attempts to convince Sumi that what the club desperately needs is a man in its midst. Shimono displays impressive comic flair as the faux geisha attempts to read the fortune of each lady without blowing his cover. Another noteworthy performance is Yama’s portrayal of Shig, who drolly insinuates himself into the action at just the right moments to throw Sumi into a recurring state of emotional chaos. Lee also scores as Tomi’s monumentally overprotective adult son, Frank.
The impressive suburban home setting of Wayne Nakasone provides a perfect environment for the onstage shenanigans. His work is complemented by the period-perfect costumes of Rodney Kageyama.