THEATER REVIEW : 'Cleveland Raining' Driven by Memories at East West


A morose man named Jimmy dreams of a flood of biblical proportions. He eats kim chee out of a mason jar, moodily sucking on his chopsticks as he contemplates his unlikely ark--a decrepit maroon Volkswagen Bug. Jimmy (Nelson Mashita) has been stocking up: He flips open the hood to reveal a trunk loaded with cases of beer and an abundance of kim chee in jars of many sizes. Now, if he could only get the Bug to start.

This apocalyptic car yard just south of Cleveland is the setting for "Cleveland Raining," a first play by Sung J. Rno, at East West Players. It's a melancholy memory play about a sister and brother holding onto the shreds of a family that their Korean immigrant parents each abandoned, one at a time. Frequently, too frequently, the siblings step forward to recite self-pitying poetry about their inability to move on. These two clearly need to get out more.

Mari (Peggy Ahn) brings home a disoriented biker chick named, coincidentally, Storm (Kei Rowan-Young), who seems to have killed her grandmother in an accident. The messianic Jimmy attracts Mick (Mark Bringelson), a goony mechanic with a shaved head who directs his vacant, open-mouthed stare at Mari with increasing tenderness.

Thank goodness for these outsiders. Not only do they help the siblings to move on, they also distract the playwright from his most self-indulgent writing and inspire him to create arresting stage pictures. In one, Mick comes bounding out of an off-stage cornfield in which he has been lost, naked, cut and bleeding, but dancing for joy. Here, as in the tableau in which Jimmy regards his Bug, Rno is at his most imaginative.

As Mari, Ahn is lovely, but her delivery is unchanging, a deadly approach to Rno's often stillborn poetry. Mashita's intense gloom gives Jimmy's stasis more force and more clarity. Clearly the two fun roles belong to Bringelson and Rowan-Young; director Shishir Kurup doesn't push their characters' oddness, but lets it speak for itself.

These oddball outsiders breathe life into a household (well, garage, actually) that is suffocated in loss and failure. The siblings cannot get over their abandonment. Jimmy is a failed painter. Mari is a failed pianist. They both make half-hearted attempts to become doctors. You want to tell them to just get over it.

Mick helps Jimmy build his dream--a car that runs on emotional loss. Like many a young writer who has found a pleasing metaphor, Rno repeats this idea over and over again. Still, Bringelson is very funny when Mick searches for the necessary fuel. He takes various objects that seem to mean something to someone, and, gingerly but with hope, drops them into a funnel he has designed on top of the car.

Like the car, "Cleveland Raining" gets off to a sputtering start, but only when the playwright is not focusing on emotional loss. Rno ignites his play's engine when he's following his interesting imagination into a mysterious cornfield or the silence of a man who's deeply engaged in the contemplation of a maroon VW Bug. At moments like this, you feel hopeful that perhaps the next time Rno will really get that car up and running.

* "Cleveland Raining," East West Players, 4424 Santa Monica Blvd., Friday-Saturday, 8 p.m., Sunday, 2 p.m. Ends April 30. $20. (213) 660-0366. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

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