nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 8, 2009
The very wise humanist playwright Kelly McAllister recently made the observation that if mankind evolved quickly then all wars would have stopped after Euripides wrote The Trojan Women. Alas, Kelly is correct: we do need our poets to constantly remind us of the fundamental truths that we apparently keep forgetting. This is where James L. Larocca's Penang comes in: I won't go so far as to say he's another Euripides, but this smart, tough-minded, insightful play plumbs deeply and feelingly into the emotional wounds that warfare leaves on us. It's a fine work, given a noteworthy and resonant mounting by director Donya K. Washington for Madison Street Productions and BOO-Arts Productions.
Penang takes place in the fall/winter/spring of 1968-1969, at the time that the Vietnam War was tearing the United States apart. It concerns a young naval officer named Tim Riordan. On the very last day of his term of duty in the Mekong Delta—just before the helicopter arrived to begin his journey back home—Tim slashed both his wrists. His commanding officer, Lt. Jake Wyman, has no idea why Tim would do such a thing; Tim is now in a military hospital in San Diego, where his newest psychiatrist, Dr. Leona Kaufman, is trying to understand what made this young man crack.
In flashback, we get the story. I don't want to give too much away, but some of Tim's agony has to do with the loss of his best friend, Robbie, in a stupid and unnecessary accident caused by a too-zealous but careless pilot. Also gnawing at Tim are problems from his family, concerning a lifelong friend and his recently divorced parents. Most immediately, there's what happened on a recent R&R trip he took to Penang, in Malaysia: a five-day trip where he meets up with army morale officer Richard "Luke" DeLuca for an excursion that proves life-affirming and life-changing.
Luke is in many ways Tim's opposite. Where Tim is a privileged kid from California who got into officer's school, Luke is a street smart fellow from the Bronx who is disappointed that he's not in the trenches. But both are burned out by the tedium, the waste, and the horrors they've experienced. They hire an old gentleman named Jimmy Chen to be their tour guide, and he not only shows them the sights of Penang but also reveals great stores of profundity to them as well.
Larocca's script takes Tim and Luke all around Penang: to a Buddhist temple, a snake temple, a Hindu swami, a waterfall, and many other locations. Washington and her set designer, Craig Napoliello, shrewdly refrain from showing us these places in a naturalistic way but rather let us experience them in our imaginations, through the vivid descriptive language provided by Larocca. In this way, we undergo the same transformation as Tim and Luke in this place that, at least for them, seems oddly magical.
The relationship between Tim and Luke is richly drawn by the playwright and the two fine actors who portray them. Scott Raker, on stage for virtually the entire play as Tim, gives a performance of unwavering honesty and forthrightness; we empathize with him immediately, even when he is not forthcoming about what's happened to him. As Luke, Peter Sabri is instantly likable, but he also probes deeply into his character to show us Luke's inner complexities and conflicts. Kurt Uy, as Jimmy Chen, gives the other exceptional performance in Penang; his humorous, warm, sagely tour guide becomes a mentor to these overwhelmed young Americans, providing a solid anchor throughout much of the story.
The supporting cast does fine work, too; particularly effective are Jeffrey Evan Thomas, who makes a strong impression in his very brief appearance as Luke's scary bunkmate, and Ray Chao, completely convincing as a Buddhist Monk who seems to pull all of the anxieties away from Tim and Luke when they meet him in a temple.
The doctor/patient relationship between Kaufman and Tim is not quite as successfully realized here, partly because Jacqueline Gregg didn't seem to have as firm a handle on her character as some of the other actors in the play, and partly because it feels derivative of things we've seen before (Arthur Laurents's Home of the Brave feels like the archetype here). Unlike in that play, Tim's problem isn't simply survivor's guilt: Larocca is uncompromising in showing the complicated kinds of damage that warfare can wreak.
Washington's direction is steady and tight and smartly paced. Design elements—Zach Blane's lighting, David Withrow's costumes, and David Schulder's sound—are simple and effective. A terrific montage of '60s era songs and excerpts from period newscasts sets the tone perfectly while the audience waits for the show to begin.
Penang is a compelling yet gentle play that makes its points with compassion and intelligence. And though it takes place during the last big American war, its relevance in the midst of our present, seemingly endless new war is sadly undeniable.