nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 15, 2009
American Hwangap, a new play by Lloyd Suh co-presented by Ma-Yi Theater Company and The Play Company, is about Min Suk Chun, a Korean who emigrated to America several decades ago and then, success eluding him, returned to his homeland and apparent ignominy. Now he is coming back to Texas, and his estranged family, to celebrate with them his "Hwangap," or 60th birthday.
Min Suk is a charming old rogue, but his absence has untethered his family in different ways. His wife, Mary, has reinvented herself, and now has a good job and security though she's obviously lonely. Their eldest child, David, has run off to an unfulfilling life as an investment banker in New York City. The middle child, Esther, has had bad luck with marriage and is prematurely embittered. The youngest, a sometime prodigy named Ralph, had some kind of breakdown and now lives in his mother's basement writing brilliant science fiction poetry. Ralph expects a miracle to accompany his father's return to their lives. The others are not so sure; David hasn't even come back home from New York yet.
Suh's play is entertaining and, in places, touching; the writing and the characterizations throughout are vivid and exciting. But the only relationship that really catches fire in the play is the one between Ralph and his (mostly) absent father. Ralph is the first person we meet in American Hwangap and, in the lovable person of Peter Kim, we take to him immediately. Though the exact nature of his mental condition is never made explicit, we empathize with this obviously broken young man, and hope against hope with him that somehow Min Suk's reappearance in his life will mend him (though we're certain it won't).
The other Chun family members are less robustly sketched out, and even though Mia Katigbak (Mary), Hoon Lee (David), and Michi Barall (Esther) make them sympathetic and interesting, we just don't have enough information about them to really root for them vis-a-vis the renegade husband/father. It felt to me as though somewhere in the development process of American Hwangap Suh got talked into spreading focus among all of the family members instead of concentrating it where the play seemed to naturally want it, on Ralph and his Dad.
James Saito, as the incorrigible Min Suk, is a lively and fun central presence in the play. Trip Cullman's staging, with an ingenious minimalist set by Erik Flatmo, is brisk and hits the emotional beats but overall American Hwangap left me wanting much more of its central relationship. Ralph and Min Suk are a pair of characters I would love to see revisited in a play that was all their own.