The Women Of Tu-Na House
nytheatre.com review by Heather J. Violanti
August 14, 2011
In The Women of Tu-Na House, versatile actor/writer Nancy Eng plays the entire staff of an Asian massage parlor that doubles not so secretly as a brothel, from the ancient man who hands out tea to the kindly, religious madam. Eng gives a skillful performance, shifting seamlessly from one character to the next, but after 55 minutes of similar stories, audience sympathy remains at bay. Eng is a compelling performer with lightning-quick comic timing, but in order for this piece to deliver on its emotional promise, her writing needs more definition.
Every woman of Tu-Na House (so called because the sign-maker misspelled Tui-na) nurses her own private heartbreak, yet somehow finds the strength to survive. It’s a familiar trope, but Eng brings freshness to it with unpredictable characters, from the no-nonsense mom putting her son through law school through prostitution, to the faded Peking opera star dispensing tea and advice, to the madam whose one stroke of good luck landed her with property in New York. The problem is the stories start to sound the same after a while, and the momentum stalls. It also doesn’t help that the transitions are underscored by cloying poems introducing each character, weirdly presented via a recorded male voice who speaks in an unemotional monotone. The poems feel unnecessary, an intrusion into the otherwise self-contained and street-smart world of Tu-Na House.
Still, Eng demonstrates consummate skill as she transforms from one character to another, imbuing even the hardest of hard-luck stories with flashes of unexpected humor, and just as skillfully giving way to a character’s despair without being self-indulgent. The moment where a 30-something prostitute mourns her cat—and discovers that crying can earn her bigger tips—is a masterful display of tragicomic acting. As it develops, the entire piece can surely find the same consistent spark.