From the time of the ancient Greeks, family reunions have always been an efficient playwriting device for setting up a nice, big, messy meltdown. Curiously, Lloyd Suh pulls back from that payoff scene (by keeping a key character otherwise occupied) in “American Hwangap.” Thus he withholds a definitive emotional release for his otherwise touching family drama about the return of a prodigal Korean dad to the family he left behind in Texas. Smart ensemble assembled by helmer Trip Cullman delivers the carefully detailed  character work that goes into knowing how to make ’em cry after you make ’em laugh.

Suh wins interest and eventually respect and affection for every member of the Chun family — even the difficult ones — by letting them reveal themselves at their own individual pace. Mary (Mia Katigbak, ideally cast) is instantly likeable, if initially hard to figure out. Although abandoned by the feckless husband who bolted back to Korea when he lost his job, this self-sufficient modern woman seems awfully quick to take him back into her bed when he returns home for his Hwangap, a 60th birthday celebration intended to usher in a spiritual rebirth for the celebrant.

The younger children in this fractured family are also easy to like, partly because of the magnetic young thesps playing them. At age 30, Esther (Michi Barall) can’t seem to settle down, having gone through a couple of husbands and several colleges. But as the incandescent Barall plays her, Esther is a positive life force.

Ralph (Peter Kim), who’s all grown up but still living in his mother’s basement, is a bona fide genius with vaguely defined mental problems that keep him smiling, but unfocused. On Kim’s face, that smile is irresistible.

David (Hoon Lee) is the oldest child and long gone, all the way to New York, where he wears smart suits, works as an investment banker, and speaks in a curt, ironic monotone. In a firmly measured perf, Lee keeps David’s unspoken rage seething just below boiling point.

If the eldest son is difficult, the father is impossible. In his blundering efforts to insinuate himself into this all-American household, Min Suk Chun (James Saito) looks like a hick and acts like a clown.  But Saito is one fine actor, incrementally revealing the cutting hurts and paralyzing fears that caused Min Suk to give up hope and flee for Korea so many years ago.

His efforts to redeem himself and claim the rebirth his Hwangap promises him may be clumsy, but they are honest, and in two quietly searing scenes (one on a fishing boat with Ralph, one up a tree with Mary; both marvelously staged on Erik Flatmo’s imaginative set), Saito breaks every heart in the house.

But the confidences shared with Ralph and Mary are truths that should be shared with David, whose resistance to his father’s pleas  to come home for his Hwangap keeps the family from restoring itself — a goal the playwright himself seems ambivalent about. It’s all very well for David to sneer from a safe distance, on long-distance cell phone conversations with Esther. But if he let out all that anger in a face-to-face confrontation with his father, a very nice play with an ambiguous ending might have taken a more electrifying turn.

American Hwangap

The Wild Project Theater; 99 seats; $25 top

  • Production: A Play Company and Ma-Yi Theater presentation of a play in one act by Lloyd Suh. Directed by Trip Cullman.
  • Crew: Sets, Erik Flatmo; costumes, Junghyun Georgia Lee; lighting, Paul Whitaker; sound, Fitz Patton; production stage manager, Jenn McNeil. Opened May 17, 2009. Reviewed May 14. Running time: 1 HOUR, 30 MIN.
  • Cast: Esther Chun - Michi Barall Mary Chun - Mia Katigbak Ralph Chun - Peter Kim David Chun - Hoon Lee Min Suk Chun - James Saito
  • Music By: