The lights come up on four Korean American teens crowded around a hotel bed. They’re members of a So Cal church group on a mission to Bangkok, Thailand — though the location only matters is the abstract. Audiences never leave the hotel room in “Man of God,” although director Maggie Burrows’ creative staging of this punchy feminist one-act from Anna Ouyang Moench has our imaginations working overtime.
Neon lights outside the window suggest the world of temptation beyond the sanctuary of the hotel room. This should be a safe space, but the play’s opening revelation ruptures that illusion: The most devout of the underage missionaries, Kyung-Hwa (Ji-Young Yoo) holds a tiny webcam in her hands, discovered moments earlier stashed behind the hotel toilet. Who could have installed it? Not much mystery there: It’s labeled “Property of New Seoul Christian Church,” which means their chaperone, the pastor, must be responsible. So the real question is: What are these four girls going to do about it?
As #MeToo scenarios go, this one succeeds in raising all the same abuse-of-power dynamics as a physical assault while still allowing Moench to approach the situation with an irreverent yet empowering sense of humor. Meanwhile, having this violation of privacy occur to four girls, instead of just one, allows the characters to share a range of conflicting reactions to what has happened.
For example, pray-away bulimic Kyung-Hwa reveals that she’s been the victim of far worse for years, and doesn’t see what’s so bad about being spied on. It’s a strange reaction for such a conservative teenager, but typical of the way that Moench isn’t merely putting her own views in the mouths of the characters. Instead, she allows them to have minds and opinions of their own. That’s a key strength of her “Man of God” script: Audiences don’t feel lectured to, but instead can triangulate their own feelings vis-à-vis these four girls.
Ultra-cynical, foul-mouthed Mimi (Erin Rae Li) is the alpha of the group. She puts no faith in God, but figured the trip sounded better than Kumon, and now here she is, stuck with three squares halfway across the world. Shy, socially awkward Jen (Emma Galbraith) would rather be studying. She doesn’t buy into wearing makeup or other cultural pressures to look pretty, which makes her the butt of cruel bullying by the others (who initially assume she may have planted the camera). Last but not least, Samantha (Shirley Chen) is a bit of an airhead, but easily the most entertaining of the four, working a pair of stuck-up pigtails to look naive and vaguely ridiculous.
These girls might have been caricatures if not for the actors who bring them to life. While the #MeToo dimension is clearly the play’s most topical selling point, it’s refreshing to see a story centered among religious Asian American teens, a demo seldom represented in any media. Half the fun of “Man of God” (which next heads to the Williamstown Theatre Festival with the same cast on July 5) comes in watching these four mismatched parties — oil-and-water personalities thrown together by the church mission, then bonded by the spycam predicament — figure out how to work through their differences toward a solution.
Now, this is where a dozen movies on turn-the-tables sexual dynamics, from “Hard Candy” to “Promising Young Woman,” have splintered off in different directions: How are relatively powerless girls supposed to solve a systemic problem with predatory male behavior? Moench goes for gleeful overkill, giving each of the girls a chance to imagine themselves taking the upper hand via a range of garishly lit, over-the-top revenge fantasies.
When the situation finally sinks in with Samantha, she snaps and pictures herself taking on the pastor (Albert Park) in an epic samurai sword battle, complete with hilariously staged slo-mo fight moves. Jen channels a scene from “The Godfather” that leaves the pastor face down in a plate of spaghetti, and Mimi dreams of extracting the culprit’s kidneys with a scalpel, then gouging out his eyes.
When the pastor finally does appear in the final scene, Moench imagines an excruciatingly long silence. “This scene, from Samantha’s decision to [omitted] until the next spoken line, should take about ten minutes,” she writes in the stage directions. It’s a bold choice, and one that forces the audience into the same powerless position as the characters for the duration. All the while, two loaded elements sit on stage, pouring energy into an already tense situation: the offending camera and the figurative Chekhov’s gun — in this case a bottle of “weird Thai juice” loaded with Xanax. With “Man of God,” Moench has taken a simple situation, four independent-minded characters and an abundance of wit and crafted a show that restores your faith in theater.