Seen from far away, Julia Cho’s “Durango” inspires admiration. The playwright uses a familiar premise — a family goes on a road trip to avoid what they cannot face at home — but she replaces the familiar, we’ve-all-learned-something ending with an absolute lack of change. Secrets and accusations fly, but they don’t close the distance between people who have mastered polite silence. Instead of catharsis, the play is shaped to deliver the awkward jolt of missed opportunities.
If the parts were as striking as the whole, the script might be remarkable. Yet even though she masters the big picture, Cho’s individual scenes feel like first drafts. Granted, she’s still an early-career scribe. This outing marks only her third major Gotham production, after “BFE” at Playwrights Horizons and “The Architecture of Loss” at New York Theater Workshop. But for a writer who has gotten so many bites from major Off Broadway companies, she often writes like she lacks her own perspective.
Her most egregious crutch is cribbing from other writers. Every member of the play’s Korean family bears the mark of characters that came before. Just like Willy Loman, for instance, father Boo-Seng (James Saito) gets dumped from his company job after decades of service and refuses to tell his kids.
Jimmy (Jon Norman Schneider), a closeted gay high schooler, copes with angst by drawing superheroes. He gives a lengthy analysis of X-Men’s Wolverine, but his speech on the character is essentially a retread of Bill’s take on Superman in “Kill Bill Vol. 2.”
These echoes of other scripts make it difficult to engage with “Durango.” If Cho hasn’t made her characters specific enough to seem fresh, why invest in them?
The family also seems half-formed because Cho saddles them with dialogue that sounds like a writer making a point instead of a human speaking. Older brother Isaac (James Yaegashi) particularly thrives on metaphorical speeches whose exquisite shape contradicts the play’s slangy, naturalistic tone.
Still, there are signs Cho’s work will mature. The delicate revelation of Jimmy’s sexuality and Boo-Seng’s long-buried hostility toward Isaac succeed through understatement. As in the anticlimactic finale, these scenes crackle because they expose raw feeling without explicitly defining it.
Subtlety also informs the perfs. Schneider impresses as he lets Jimmy’s fear of his sexuality emerge in a softly shaking voice or sudden burst of movement. When Isaac’s father berates him, Yaegashi makes the affecting choice to react with weary defeat instead of anger. His posture suggests Isaac felt Boo-Seng’s hostility long before it was put into words.
Director Chay Yew, himself an accomplished playwright, highlights his actors with simple staging. Movements are spare, so every gesture seems purposeful. Only in transitional moments does the helmer overwork, creating unnecessary dumb shows like Isaac and Boo-Seng fighting over a map while Jimmy tries to keep them calm. That dynamic is clear without Yew’s underlining.
If that chaff could be cut from the production, along with the more predictable scenes, “Durango” might prove its family is miserable in its own particular way.