STAGE REVIEW : A SigAlert on 'Through Street'

TIMES THEATER CRITIC

It's an obvious trap: Name a play "Not a Through Street," watch it become a dead end when it doesn't work.

It doesn't work at East West Players where this latest piece by Wakako Yamauchi (author of the much acclaimed 1977 "And the Soul Shall Dance") takes more than two hours to deliver what might have been nourishment enough for a 20-minute sketch.

"Street" is a painfully slow journey through virtual non-events on a quiet cul-de-sac in an Asian-American suburb of Los Angeles. Living in one house is well-meaning busybody May (Saachiko). Living in another is World War II vet-in-a-wheelchair Ben (Dom Magwili). And in the house between is a mystery woman named Keiko (Nobu McCarthy), who only just moved in.

To give away more is to give away all there is of this work. It's a transparently slender tale of self-discovery and mutual support that enables all inhabitants of this neighborhood, including the semi-lucid pair of occasional visitors from the halfway house up the street, to gain a confidence they did not possess when the play began.

You can't quite watch the flies on the wall, but almost. However well-intentioned Yamauchi's bit of intimate portraiture may be, there is too much that happens too slowly, too much that doesn't happen at all and too much of what happens that's plain unconvincing.

The playwright is so in love with her cargo of damaged goods that she deals with it in too reverential (read boring) a manner. But if Yamauchi was blinded by her subject, where was dramaturg Marcina Motter? Coincidence plays a precariously key role in the plot (it turns out Keiko had caught sight of Ben years ago in the camp), and overhearing a radio talk show is an untheatrical substitute for an honest-to-goodness scene.

All Yamauchi's characters are wooden and incomplete. We hear references to Keiko's son but have few other clues about him; we know that May is married, with grown children who don't visit, but we never find out why, or how May feels about it. Indirection is one thing, total concealment another.

Director Heidi Helen Davis has been unable to prod the actors into wading through these run-of-the-mill emotions at anything faster than a beatified snail's pace.

Magwili does best, despite lines, circumstances and actions that rarely help him flesh out his character--that of a bitter, disappointed man who volunteered to serve his country, only to see family and friends ushered into internment camps and his own hopes dashed by the injury he received.

But McCarthy's Keiko, smarting from another kind of injury, is such a shrinking violet, so soft-spoken and dramatically withdrawn, that she inspires more impatience than sympathy. Her crawl disrupts the most basic dynamics of a scene.

Saachiko's May and Jim Ishida's Tom (a repentant husband) are hampered by the sketchiness of their characters, and while the halfway house drifters, Roy (David Joseph) and Ruth (Irma Escamilla), are nicely developed within their screwy limitations, they remain peripheral to the action.

Both actors are fine, though, with Joseph making a significant impression as a sometimes manic young man who wants desperately to please and make good.

It's a small mercy in a play that charitably can be called a work-in-progress, lost in a confusion of good intentions and misguided moves.

'Not a Through Street'

Irma Escamilla: Ruth

David Joseph: Roy

Dom Magwili: Ben

Saachiko: May

Nobu McCarthy: Keiko

Jim Ishida: Tom

Michael Shibata: Jogger

Steven Hamilton: Jogger

A new play by Wakako Yamauchi. Producers Tom Donaldson, Natalie Topel. Director Heidi Helen Davis. Set Serena McCarthy, Michael Ludovico. Lights Rae Creevey. Costumes Terence Tam Soon. Hair and Makeup Christina Souza. Dramaturg Marcina Motter. Stage manager Nelson Mashita.

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