Ethnic identity anxiety, cultural differences and personal pressure stack up against a mixed-race couple with a new baby in a gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood in Diana Son’s “Satellites.” The playwright’s reunion, after 1998 hit “Stop Kiss,” with the Public Theater and with star Sandra Oh is intelligent and well-intentioned but somewhat unsatisfying — like spending time with friends who were more fun and interesting before they became parents and the conversation got stuck on child-rearing, sleep deprivation and renovation headaches. Michael Greif’s hyperactive direction only exacerbates the play’s shortage of emotional involvement.
Falling into a trap that snares many writers tackling race issues — notably Paul Haggis with the overrated “Crash” — Son’s script feels schematic and overdetermined. Its characters and their ungrounded relationships don’t develop organically but seem to exist exclusively to advance plot points and embody various conflicts, stereotypes and reverse-stereotypes.
Korean-American architect Nina (Oh) and her African-American husband, Miles (Kevin Carroll), are first seen in the cramped corridor of their apartment soon after the birth of their baby, Hannah. In the first of set designer Mark Wendland’s neat tricks, the walls glide back and rotate to become the expansive, crumbling spaces of a long-uninhabited Brooklyn brownstone, the kind optimistically referred to by real estate brokers as fixer-uppers.
The brick hurled through the couple’s window is only the start of their problems. Finances are tight. Sex is a distant memory. Miles has lost his job in computers, leaving Nina to bring in the sole paycheck. Deadline is looming for an international architecture competition, and Nina’s partner Kit (Johanna Day) feels maternity is sapping her focus. Miles’ shifty but insecure white brother Eric (Clarke Thorell) returns from Southeast Asia looking for free rent and pitching a dubious entrepreneurial scheme.
Troubled by her own detachment from her cultural roots, Nina hires a Korean nanny (Satya Lee), whose old-world racist attitudes soon begin to chafe. Miles, in turn, looks with suspicion upon Reggie (Ron Cephas Jones), an African-American longtime resident on the block who extends a helping hand to the new neighbors while expecting his cut of all business transactions.
The least credible of the many conflicts Son heaps on her characters is Miles’ inability to be a father to Hannah, whom he refuses even to hold. An adopted heroin baby who grew up in an all-white environment, Miles is adrift with no sense of himself or where he came from, denying him the foundations to be a parent.
While Son’s dialogue is smart and enlivened by wry observations, much of this is articulated from a forced, post-therapy perspective that hangs as awkwardly on the play’s naturalistic frame as does the too-tidy resolution.
The actors all do credible work, and it’s a pleasure to see Oh back on a New York stage, her deft balance of droll cynicism and flinty abrasiveness channeled to convey a woman buckling under accumulated strain. But Greif in too many ways behaves like he’s still directing “Rent,” keeping the cast incessantly motoring around the stage in a state of amped-up agitation. Their anxieties become as enervating for the audience as they are for the characters.