Times Theater Writer

Whatever Cherylene Lee had in mind when she set out to write "Wong Bow Rides Again," now at East West Players, she came to the task unprepared. We see (too clearly, if anything) what she wanted to give us: a psychological dissection of several members of one Chinese-American family on a bumpy bus ride to Las Vegas. It is what she fails to deliver in the context of those intentions that is troubling.

Wong Bow (Dana Lee) is both the ghostly patriarch of the group and the driver of the bus, revving this family up on its road to gambling Gomorrah (translation: on its wild ride through life). This metaphysical tidbit is as far as Lee will mix her myths and her metaphors. Aside from this fairly elementary swirling of mythology and reality, we spend the next hour and a half watching a rowdy, shallow group of addicted gamblers, who happen to be related to one another, board and ride and disembark this bus. They discuss their various ordinary problems without originality or fresh insights. The men are boorish, the women helpless and preoccupied with health and disappointing husbands. This is stereotypical reality--and it becomes crashingly dull on stage.

The problem is compounded by the production. Directors Jose Pepito Kim and Leigh C. Kim have cast the play haphazardly. Frances Fong and Dian Kobayashi, two relatively young women, play the surviving matriarchs of the group. Such lines as "At my age, it's too risky . . . " make very little sense coming out of the mouths of women who look about 35 (give or take a few years).

For their part, the men in this family seem intent on only two things--gambling and drinking, and they start doing both the minute they climb aboard, as though the bus were an automatic extension of their destination. Their behavior is predictable and one-note: loud and insensitive and strictly hail-fellow-well-met. Whatever distinctions are made (and there are a few) seem thoroughly arbitrary--a bit of spice on a carelessly prepared dish. Lee has Wong Bow point out his widow to us early on, then quite inexplicably forgets about her for the remainder of the play. Who is she? What was their life together like? Why is she there at all? The questions remain unanswered.

It is this sort of slapdash construction that becomes self-defeating and makes "Wong Bow" feel like a school assignment: write a play about a family bus ride to Las Vegas and show us who these people are. Lee achieves the latter half of the assignment only in the case of granddaughter Alice and then in a rather clumsy and obvious manner. Only troubled Alice (nicely played by Patty Toy), divorced and jobless, comes to any sense of resolution. But we're not allowed to relish it for long. Wong Bow's proclamation at the end of the ride that people have to play the hand life deals them all but lights up with Las Vegas neon. It is embarrassing in its self-evidence.

Had Lee started out with more compelling characters, would things have been different? Nice thought, but doubtful. The problem lies a lot deeper. Lee doesn't write scenes. She writes lines. Her exchanges are just that: a superficial trading of words and phrases. Feelings, motivations and thoughts play a very small role in her overall scheme. She has still to learn to dwell on the unspoken.

Production values for "Wong Bow" are rudimentary, with chairs and platforms simulating the bus (G. Shizuko Herrera is the designer) and Rae Creevey's lights trying to imitate headlights from passing cars but achieving mostly an irritating fluctuating effect--come to think of it, not unlike the play. Costumes and sound by Sylvia Wong and Nason Wong, respectively, are fine.

Performances at 4424 Santa Monica Blvd. in Hollywood run Thursdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sundays, 7:30 p.m. with a special matinee next Sunday (check theater for time). Tickets are $10-$12. "Wong Bow" ends March 8. (213) 660-0366.

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