Angel Island Theatre Company

at Centre East Studio

This production of F.O.B. represents a lot of firsts. It’s the midwest premiere of the first play by David Henry Hwang–who wrote it in 1979 and who is the author of the current New York hit M. Butterfly–and the first Chicago production of any of his full-length works. It is also the debut production of the Angel Island Theatre Company, a new Asian American company in Chicago named after the west-coast version of Ellis Island.

This show about Chinese Americans in various stages of assimilation starts with a lively, nasty lecture by Dale, who was born in California, on the alleged shortcomings of those who are fresh off the boat (F.O.B.). From lights up to the final blackout, James Sie puts soul and wit into Dale’s nervous hostility–the hostility of a son of immigrants who’s trying to merge into white America but not quite succeeding. He directs his frustrations at his ethnic roots, later personified by F.O.B. Steve. Jealousy, rivalry, and comedy ensue.

Unfortunately, after the opening monologue the production sputters along for a while, weighed down with slack pacing and tentative characterizations. Grace, who immigrated as a child, and Steve are supposed to be flirting, but Cheryl Hamada’s Grace doesn’t seem to enjoy the verbal sparring, nor does she seem very indignant about Steve’s overt sexual advances–which aren’t aggressive or ridiculous enough, anyway, as Russell Kuzuhara plays them. Steve claims to be Gwan Gung, god of warriors, writers, and prostitutes. Grace scoffs, but secretly she claims to be Fa Mu Lan, the woman warrior. The god has no doubts about his irresistibility; Grace says that American women demand respect. It ought to be burlesque, but this production just meanders.

Dale’s entrance snaps tension into the dramatic rope. Kuzuhara responds to Dale’s sometimes witty, always lively hostility with a nice, dry wit. In their competition for Grace’s attention and affection, the script provides many twists and turns, which the two men handle with intelligence and energy. If Hamada isn’t as lively or effective in these middle scenes, maybe it’s because her role is more passive and abstract. Grace is the image of the integrated personality: culturally assimilated, like Dale, and in touch with her ethnic roots, like Steve. Not only is she practically perfect in every way, but in mediating the other characters’ differences, she forces them to grow.

In the last scenes the acting is intense and convincing: the fury immense and controlled, the poignancy gracefully awkward. The only blot on the script is the recapitulation of the opening monologue, which ends the play on an unnecessarily bitter note.

With its theatrical character transformations and poetic monologues that periodically interrupt the narrative, F.O.B. is reminiscent of some of Sam Shepard’s plays. But while Hwang’s digressive speeches are projections of characters’ inner states, their cultural and historical content takes them beyond Shepard’s concerns.