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A CurtainUp DC Review
Big Hunk O' Burnin' Love
"Plays about people who are Asian," Artistic Director Stan Kang declares, " not about politics."
That's what Kang hopes to see on stage twice a year as his fledgling company gets off the ground in Arlington, Va. He aims to give Asian-American theatre artists a forum for their work and he wants to showcase new plays that present the Asian perspective on life in the land of plenty.
Surely the Washington, D.C. market is crying out for such a theater. But judging by its debut production, Big Hunk O' Burnin' Love, Kang has his work cut out for him.
The new comedy by Prince Gomolvilas, a young Thai-American writer, opened Dec. 14 at the Clark Street Playhouse to a receptive crowd. And while it is hilarious in spots, overall, the production needs stronger direction to overcome a poorly constructed script. The actors struggle to make characters out of stereotypes, and the production absolutely swims on a set that is completely wrong for it -- heavy, cold, and grossly underused.
Big Hunk O' Burnin' Love concerns a Thai man who must marry before age 30 or self-ignite. It's an odd family curse, but spontaneous human combustion has already claimed other recalcitrant bachelors in his family, so Winston (Edu. Bernardino) is particularly frantic. His parents have brought Noi, a young Thai girl (Michelle T. Hall) to America to meet and marry their son, who is far too American to consider an arranged match. They don't understand the problem. "You have plenty in common," they declare. "You're both Thai!" Meanwhile, Winston laments his fate to his Chinese-American buddy, Nick (Richard Dorton), and Nick's wife, Sylvia (Samantha Kearney), a white woman who was once Winston's girlfriend.
Through a series of monologues scattered between scenes, Gomolvilas does a creditable job showing us the unspoken motives of each character. Noi's monologue is particularly touching, as Gomolvilas presents her struggle to reconcile her need to marry Winston and stay in America against her desire to remain in Thailand, with family and friends and the lover who remains there.
Yet Gomolvilas covers no new territory in pitting old-world values -- loyalty to family, respect for parents, honor of tradition -- against new world sensibilities, particularly the search for personal fulfilment. Winston is a failing actor whose career choice puzzles his parents. His poverty forces him to continue living at home, which pleases them. But despite the threat of imminent immolation, he cannot quite bring himself to marry Noi. As the deadline for his decision nears, he embarks on a wild expedition to find "the perfect woman."
There's no question Gomovilas has a sharp comic ear: "Every time I go to the beach I can feel women dressing me with their eyes," Winston laments. And later, when Winston goes to a disco in a desperate effort to find a more suitable match, he reports: "Three drinks were thrown in my face, I was kicked in the shins twice and I got the finger--and that was just the first woman I spoke to."
Funny enough, but one-liners like these are not enough to keep the play from sinking under the weight of cliche. For despite the exotic aspects of his Thai heritage, Winston is like any other geek I've seen paraded through romantic comedy. He is said to be inept with women, unable to get a date. Nick gives him tips on how to be more suave. Of course he fails. And yet, Edu. Bernardino is so relentlessly winsome in the role of Winston that I find myself unable to understand what the problem is. In San Francisco of all places, where straight guys of any ethnic heritage are in short supply, you'd think some young thing would snatch up a guy as cute as that.
Much is unexplained in this play, while far too much is told--and that is precisely the trouble. We are asked to accept at face value things that are, at face value, unacceptable--that Sylvia might still harbor some feelings for Winston, that Winston might try his luck with his best friend's wife, that Winston's father might, in desperation, feign a divorce from his son's mother in order to force Winston's hand with Noi. Perhaps if Gomolvilas had set up Sylvia and Nick as merely a dating couple, rather than a married couple, I could more easily buy Winston's move for her and Sylvia's receptiveness to that move. But as it is, Winston comes off as a cad and Sylvia as a flake, and neither quality makes a character particularly easy to watch.
Kang, for all his good intentions, does not get the best out of his actors in this production. And a more seasoned cast might be able to overcome the worst limitation of the script, which is Gomolvilas himself.
Described in the press materials as "twenty-something," the author shows both his youth and his painful ignorance of women in his depiction of Sylvia. She has no function in this play other than to serve as someone for Nick and Winston to play against. Nick is in love with her and Winston wants her, but why? Sylvia is a blank. We know nothing about her, other than her age and the fact that she once dated Winston. Then we learn that she has breast cancer at the age of 29 and is understandably devastated. She complains that her husband did not sense this, did not see the changes in her physiology. And yet, when Winston makes a play for her, she suddenly realizes that she doesn't love Nick. It is a sequence that defies all logic. Someone tell me what woman would leave her husband in the middle of this kind of trauma? And for the man who had rejected her five years earlier? Please.