If there's a late twentieth-century playwright who knew about the birds and bees it would have to be A.R. Gurney (The Dining Room, The Cocktail Hour, Love Letters, Sylvia, The Wayside Motor Inn – all produced in Houston theaters over various past seasons).
Well, maybe not birds...maybe not even bees, either. How about WASPS, you know those Anglo-Saxon White Protestants over whom he was obsessed. He was one himself and never tired of tweaking their noses with a velvet pinch on the cheek or a soft poke on the arm. He loved to dissect them, pin them on a board, or knock them silly with a dose of formaldehyde.
One of his rarer works, Far East (1999), coming after the successes of The Cocktail Hour and The Dining Room, strands his American brahmins smack into alien territory – post WWII Japan. Could there be a better place for his privileged and pampered noblesse oblige to confront, to be mesmerized, to be confused by the Other? It is a place of sliding paper shoji screens, unusual-sounding musical instruments, the exotic world of Suzi Wong and Madam Butterfly, the sex bars of a defeated occupied enemy, all filtered through western eyes not used to such foreign currency. These occupiers are out of their league and could be on the moons of Saturn. Of course, what they cannot escape, or change, is the human heart.
Simplified like a Kabuki performance, the Alta Arts' stage under On the Verge Producing Artistic Director Ron Jones' fluid direction is bare except for a huge shoji screen upstage, with a sliding door for entrances and exits, used for appropriate projections like maps, clouds, or a patterned backdrop. The minimal set and projections are by Santiago Sepeda.
The Reader (Nova Wang) sits upstage left and performs various characters: lover, minor officers, bar madam. To signify the end of a scene, she clacks the wooden shaku. A percussionist offstage plays the taiko. Although granted a curtain call, she's not listed in the playbill so I can't give her credit, but her drumming was most expressive. And like Japanese theater, two stagehands dressed in black arrange what set pieces are needed for the scenes. The mise en scene is ceremonial, quasi-religious, and sparse. All extraneous material has been excised until only the drama remains. It's been decocted to its essence.
Unfortunately, the essence seems blunted by Gurney's own distance from his characters, although apparently drawn from his own wartime experiences in the far East. Lieutenant Sparky Watts (Brock Huerter), young naval officer and stud, is not innocent or impressionable. Huerter plays him smug and rather arrogant. Is he supposed to be Puccini's randy Pinkerton, buying his bride for a quickie, or an innocent abroad, slowly seduced by the charms of the foreign? He knows what he wants from the get-go, which leaves little room to develop and grow.
Jason Duga, as Sparky's superior Captain Anderson, reads too young for the role and hardly seems battle-hardened. Leslie Lenert, as Anderson's wife Julia, who falls for Sparky but doesn't “follow through,” fares better as the neglected wife who longs for home and seeks comfort in offering help to her husband's new recruits. As a second wife, she can't forget or forgive her husband's former fling that haunts him. Jealous of Sparky's lover, she will eventually tell his family about his affair with a Japanese waitress, bringing on much mischief. “You gravitate to your own kind,” is Gurney's ironic motto for these not-so-innocents abroad.
Gurney throws in a subplot about Bob (Christian Tannous), a closeted officer who is being blackmailed by his Japanese lover, only as an excuse to discuss our soon-to-be disastrous Vietnam war. Tannous plays him well, but the character is an afterthought.
Melinda Beckham-Cone's costumes are period perfect, especially that golf outfit for Julia and her leopard jacket and open-toed pumps, but those “dress whites” for Sparky are straight out of the Village People's “In the Navy.” Talk about your tighty-whities. This has either been sewn or painted onto buff Huerter. I don't think any naval code in the world would have sanctioned this uniform.
Sparky's unnamed lover has but one line, “You go now, Sparky-san?” The Other is certainly portrayed as the other, as Gurney keeps her and us at arm's length throughout.
Far East continues through September 17 at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; and 3 p.m. Sundays (with an additional pay-as-you-can industry night scheduled for Monday, September 18) at The Alta Arts, 5412 Ashbrook. For more information, visit onthevergetheatre.org or brightcatchmediaevents.com. $30-$45.