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Striking ‘Letters to a Student Revolutionary’

Totalitarianism is never subtle, and neither is Elizabeth Wong’s cartoonish but ultimately moving new drama “Letters to a Student Revolutionary” at East West Players. Wong’s broad black-and-white brush strokes sometimes threaten to obliterate the substance of her drama, but the overall effect is striking.

Set between 1979 and 1989--the span between China’s unprecedented opening of its markets to foreign trade and the Tian An Men Square massacre--the play concerns the friendship between the American Bibi (Jennifer Fujii) and her Chinese counterpart Karen (Vicky Chow), who meet by chance in Beijing, where Bibi is vacationing, and begin a decade-long correspondence.

Raised in near feudal circumstances, Karen (who has secretly adopted an American name in her eagerness to emulate all things Western) views Bibi as a thrilling emissary from “paradise.” She pleads with Bibi to become her American sponsor so that she can emigrate to the United States. Bibi, the perky, privileged offspring of Chinese American parents, initially views Karen as a pest who is merely trying to use her as a ticket out of China.

However, as the young women’s epistolary intimacy increases, Bibi finds an unexpectedly kindred spirit in her Chinese pen pal.

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As Bibi drifts from job to job and man to man, unable to find a purpose in her life beyond shopping at the mall, her much-vaunted liberty becomes dust and ashes in her mouth.

Ironically, while Bibi is adrift in a materialistic abyss, Karen grows ever more purposeful. Buoyed up by her country’s shift toward democracy, Karen marries an academic and becomes active in the student radical movement.

Karen’s wistful, courageous gropings toward freedom culminate disastrously in Tian An Men Square, while a stunned world looks on.

Although it occasionally treads the low road to melodrama, Wong’s play, ably directed by Szu Wang Wakeman, is genuinely cathartic. For those who might be misled by the title, which suggests a dry, dusty university lecture, it is also surprisingly upbeat and funny, in effective contrast to the drama’s grim denouement.

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An energetic and polished cast--which includes Newton Kaneshiro, Art Desuyo, Rex Lee and Janet J. Song--manages the formidable feat of re-creating the Tian An Men Square massacre. Aided by Debra Garcia Lockwood’s evocative lighting, the performers convincingly convey the panic, violence and dashed expectations of that terrible event.

* “Letters to a Student Revolutionary,” East West Players, 4424 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends June 12. $15-$20. (213) 660-0366. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

Robert Glaudini Has Mixed ‘Success’

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In “The Secret of Success” at the Cast, actor-playwright-director Robert Glaudini demonstrates that he is jack of all trades, master of one. Glaudini’s acting skills outpace his talents as playwright and director, at least in this production.

As the smarmy former private eye T. Claude Brown, Glaudini creates an appealingly oddball character whose smarm is balanced by his charm.

Glaudini’s writing is another matter. An uneasy hybrid of realism and farce, the play is further hindered by a lame McGuffin device that wouldn’t pass muster in an episodic television series.

Directorially, Glaudini fares somewhat better, drawing quirkily compelling performances out of his cast. Shawna Casey is particularly effective as the strung-out hooker Celine, a street angel dancing on the head of a heroin needle.

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However, Glaudini does little to smooth over the conflicting styles of his own work, sacrificing discipline for a performer-oriented showcase that smacks of an acting class improv.

* “The Secret of Success,” Cast Theatre, 804 N. El Centro, Hollywood. Runs in repertory. Performances May 13, 21, 22, 28, 29 and June 4, 5, 9 and 10. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. $12. (213) 462-0265. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.


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