Veteran solo-show artist Dan Kwong essays his first full-length, multi-character piece with "Be Like Water," a world premiere at East West Players. Kwong's keen sense of fun and obvious sincerity are unfortunately undermined by his poorly developed themes, which seem more appropriate for an after-school special. Given a defter and more sophisticated approach, the material's flaws might have been mitigated. Unfortunately, director Chris Tashima opts for a regrettable broadness throughout his problematic staging.
The action is set in 1978 Chicago, where tomboyish eighth-grader Tracy (Saya Tomioka) struggles to come of age under the unforgiving eye of her hypercritical mother, Kimiko (Pam Hayashida), who expects Tracy to act like a perfectly groomed and docile doll. Conversely, Tracy's father, Frank (Michael Sun Lee), is a Bruce Lee fanatic who has raised Tracy to revere and emulate the famous action hero.
Tracy is a gifted martial artist in her own right, much to the horror of Kimiko, who wants Tracy to act more like her classmate Tina (Ariel Rivera), a perky cheerleader and Tracy's hated antagonist. Despite her mother's disapproval, Tracy's self-defense skills help her ward off the vicious Jeremy (Jonathan Decker), a young racist who, today, would probably be hauled into juvie on hate-crime charges.
But in these pre-Columbine times, school bullying has not yet become an issue. Kids sink or swim in their own little pond -- and Tracy is sinking. More buoyant is her only friend, Bruce Lee (Shawn Huang). Coincidentally named for Tracy's hero, young Bruce navigates the world in a kinetic whirl of wild disco moves -- unsubtle comic relief that, despite the expertise of the winning Huang, seems stilted.
Just when Tracy is at her glummest, she's visited by the Ghost of Bruce Lee (perfectly cast Cesar Cipriano), who appears in a glass of water on Tracy's bedroom table and quickly becomes Tracy's ectoplasmic mentor, spouting platitudes of dubious profundity as he teaches Tracy how to be "like water," formless and elemental.
As the plot wends on, Tracy's problems multiply, as do the production's. Akeime Mitterlehner's deceptively magnificent set design, dominated by a huge suspended oval that looks like an ancient Asian temple entrance, may look great but fails to serve the play. The spirit Bruce enters through that handsome oval, which also serves, quite neatly, as a screen for various projected images. Yet why is the rest of the cast reduced to ducking around the side of that center set piece, "miming" opening and closing doors as they go?
Choreographer Blythe Matsui's dance numbers, set to the driving disco rhythms of Dave Iwataki's excellent sound design, are well executed, and the martial arts sequences, staged by Diana Lee Inosanto and Ron Balicki, give Cipriano a chance to show off his physical prowess. Poised and athletic, young Tomioka has a naturalistic intensity that is ultimately moving. However, she could use some remedial diction lessons, as could the rest of the kids in the cast, whose utterances are frequently incoherent.
As for Kwong, he hits his stride in Frank's lovely speech about why he loves Bruce Lee -- an Asian role model where few had existed before. Also affecting is Kimiko's recollection of her childhood incarceration in an internment camp. Both passages are monologues, Kwong's proven forte, and both are reminders that Kwong, operating in his familiar format, can still deliver a roundhouse kick to the emotions.
"Be Like Water," David Henry Hwang Theater, 120 Judge John Aiso St., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Oct. 12. $30-$35. (213) 625-7000. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes