Culture shock, like grief, progresses through distinct stages: There's the honeymoon period, when an expatriate is enchanted by a new country. Bliss gives way to withdrawal and hostility, the adjustment and, ultimately, acceptance. This journey happens to have a pleasing narrative structure that works well onstage.
Giovanni Ortega's "Criers for Hire," in its world premiere at East West Players, tells the kind of fish-out-of-water story we've heard before, but it's one we can't resist. It's told humorously and movingly, with fresh colors and details.
A Filipina woman named Baby (Joan Almedilla) has finally earned enough money to bring her 14-year-old daughter, Gaya (Nicole Barredo), to live with her in Los Angeles. Raised in the Philippines, Gaya knows her mother primarily through her loving but vague letters about life in America.
One detail Baby has left out is that she works part-time as a mourner, crying for pay at Chinese funerals. Baby's boss, Meding (Giselle "G" Tongi), runs a company called Criers for Hire, which in its heyday employed 20 women to sob on command. But lately her staff has shrunk to Baby and a younger, American-born Filipina called Henny (Samantha Cutaran).
In need of a fourth mourner, the criers ask Gaya to fill in; but having been raised to keep her sorrows to herself, she claims not to know how. The women try to teach her, letting her in on the tricks of their trade. Their escalatingly ridiculous techniques for faking grief send the audience into hysterics; they have the same effect on Gaya, who can't keep a straight face.
Gaya's unquenchable pluck is endearing, especially because she could find reasons to cry if she wanted to. At school, her classmates belittle her and make fun of her accent; her only friends are the characters on TV's "Saved by the Bell." (The story is set in the early 1990s.) Her loneliness is evoked even by the set, a series of small spaces revealed and hidden by designer Christopher Scott Murillo's sliding panels.
At the bus stop, Gaya finally makes a real friend, a Mexican teenager named Narciso (Rudy Martinez) who has a morose air from listening continuously to Morrissey and Tears for Fears on his Walkman. Beneath the glum mien, though, he's sweet and energetic, and he persuades Gaya to sneak out to clubs with him while Baby works late at a nursing home called, absurdly, Live Long & Prosper.
When Baby discovers Gaya's deception, the inevitable conflict exposes the customary hidden truths. The effective resolution provoked audible sniffles and moist eyes on opening night.
Jon Lawrence Rivera directs the sweet comedy with an occasionally heavy hand, encouraging the criers, especially, to ham it up even between bouts of false anguish. They perform in a combination of Tagalog and English, with supertitles sometimes providing English translations, and possibly the anxiety of not being understood is behind some of the mugging. We could follow even if they toned things down a bit; the story they have to tell, of homesickness and yearning to fit in, of mothers and daughters growing up together and apart, is universal.
"Criers for Hire"
Where: David Henry Hwang Theatre at the Union Center for the Arts, 120 Judge John Aiso St., Los Angeles
When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends March 13
Info: (213) 625-7000 or www.eastwestplayers.org
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes