At the karaoke party being held after his wife’s funeral, a widower turns to his teenage daughter and says, “No one needs to see tears. They bring everybody down.” And so goes the emotional state of Suzanne Lee’s “Worth.” It may be seething everywhere, but the pain that steers this family drama is rarely named. Instead, Lee, making her professional playwriting debut, keeps her characters doing everything they can to avoid their own desperation.
We do get snatches of the truth, though, and they electrify the opening scenes. With an excellent sense of timing, Lee delivers revelations about Edward (Ben Wang) and daughter Joanna (Hana Moon), and then immediately creates a situation that makes it impossible to learn more.
The roadblock is usually Sunny Pak (Constance Boardman), a supposed friend of Edward’s wife who keeps showing up with offers to cook or clean. For instance, the moment Joanna learns her father has lost his job, Sunny rings the bell. Edward insists his daughter play hostess, and a squirming dinner party ensues.
Moon and Wang’s shared glances and clipped tones keep us aware of what’s roiling beneath their surfaces, but the standout work comes from Boardman. With the slightest pause or tilt of the head, she reveals a flicker of secrecy beneath Sunny’s domestic cheer, suggesting it’s not just father and daughter who are putting on a show.
Credit for this mystery also goes to Lee, who has a knack for releasing information at intervals that keep the plot moving forward without entirely revealing her hand.
Once secrets do unravel, Lee proves she’s also adept at political writing. As her title suggests, her ultimate focus is on the bargaining value of a human life. Using not only Edward’s unemployment but also the truth about Joanna’s academic potential and Sunny’s previous marriages, she writes well-reasoned arguments against the soul-killing pressure to assign one’s self oneself a value.
However, as the play transforms from domestic intrigue to social study, Lee loses control of her structure. She pushes her metaphor to its furthest point by making Joanna — unnerved by the growing romance between Sunny and Edward — become a stripper. The image of Moon straddling a pole certainly brings up questions of the body as commodity, but it never feels consistent with her character.
The conclusion also strains credulity, since it revolves around the improbable appearance of Sunny at the strip club and the sudden disclosure that cash-strapped Edward has somehow rented himself a private room in downtown New York. Some of the power drains from Lee’s insights as they’re placed in such an illogical milieu.
Plot holes feel forgivable, however, thanks to the continued dedication of the three central thesps. Locking eyes and standing stock still, they fire climactic truths at each other with the emotional ferocity of people relieved that the dam is breaking. Again, it’s Boardman who leads the way, using the tones of her voice to paint a vivid picture of how Sunny has been wounded by the attempt to make herself feel valuable.
Unfortunately, the actors’ focus can’t always overcome some serious limitations in Lee Savage’s set. Consisting of three sliding walls that are reconfigured to suggest various rooms, it often leaves holes that expose stagehands and actors meandering in the background. These slips don’t occur often enough to sink the production, but they do distract from the worthy efforts of the cast and playwright.