Consider this poignant moment in “Yohen,” a retirement-years marital drama being revived with Danny Glover as its star:
The movie and stage actor, portraying a former amateur fighter, shadow boxes while letting a phone ring unanswered. The caller, seen on the other side of the stage, is his estranged wife, trying to reach out after a contretemps. Both are jabbing and feinting against disappointment.
Artfully staged and moodily lighted, this brief, between-scenes interlude communicates more effectively than most of the 85 minutes around it. For a few moments, at least, no one has to speak, which proves an unintended blessing for a production plagued at its Wednesday opening by so many fumbled lines that the story never had a chance to catch hold.
The presentation at East West Players’ theater in downtown L.A. is a repeat of a notable 1999 collaboration between the Asian American theater organization and an African American one, the Robey Theatre Company. East West is in the midst of a season focused on partnerships; it has “Kaidan Project” running in a co-production with Rogue Artists Ensemble as well as this reteaming with the Robey, of which Glover is co-founder.
When Glover originated this role 18 years ago, F. Kathleen Foley, writing for The Times, praised his “towering effectiveness” while cautioning that his performance was “imperfect.” This time, the imperfections dominate.
The script is by Philip Kan Gotanda, author of such plays as “Yankee Dawg You Die,” “The Wash” and “Fish Head Soup.” He’s known for giving voice not just to Asian Americans but to many others who feel marginalized. Here he considers the ostracism faced by a retired black military man and his Japan-born wife, though that’s just one factor roiling to the surface during an agitated phase in their long marriage.
Set in 1980s Los Angeles, the story unspools episodically, parceling details over time.
Glover’s James Washington arrives at a suburban door, hesitates, then knocks. There’s no immediate answer. Then, within, June Angela’s Sumi emerges, smoothing her carefully chosen clothing as though preparing for a date. It takes a while to figure out, but Sumi has turned James out of their home and asked him to court her anew.
For the most part, this couple’s difficulties could be anybody’s, years of habits that seem no longer bearable. Gotanda layers in symbolism: James, fond of coaching kids in boxing, speaks with his fists while Sumi, a student potter, uses her hands to make art. The play’s title reflects their marriage. Yohen is a name for pottery that acquires its character from chance events in the kiln. The pieces can seem flawed yet unexpectedly beautiful. (Gotanda in his early 20s apprenticed with a potter in Japan for a year and a half.)
Humor as well as yearning emerge from the characters’ differences. In the rare moments when the courting is going well, Angela’s Sumi turns shy yet pleased, revealing glimpses of her younger self. Glover’s James is gruffly amiable.
But the script has drawbacks. It withholds too many important details until the end, by which point we’ve long since given up hope that the play is anything more than an unfortunate eavesdrop on a neighbor’s marital discord.
A bigger problem, at least on Wednesday, was Glover’s low-energy, hard-to-hear, text-garbled performance. He tried to guffaw through lines he couldn’t remember or that came out backward, but his portrayal — and the production as a whole, directed by Ben Guillory — suffered. As the couple squabbled in a partly realistic, partly fanciful living room designed by Christopher Scott Murillo, events failed to build momentum, emotions refused to flow.
The beauty in this yohen of a marriage was difficult to spot.
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Where: David Henry Hwang Theater, Union Center for the Arts, 120 Judge John Aiso St., Los Angeles
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; ends Nov. 19
Info: (213) 625-7000, www.eastwestplayers.org
Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes (no intermission)