“This is the story of a wish.” So begins Jiehae Park’s magical and messy “Hannah and the Dread Gazebo,” a play that is far less straightforward than its opening line.
Hannah (Monica Hong), the teller of this twisting tale, has received a vial in the mail with a small stone at the bottom. Accompanying this strange FedEx package is an apparent suicide note written by her Korean grandmother, who has been living in an assisted living center in South Korea right on the border of the DMZ.
A New York-based doctor who’s about to take an important exam to become a board-certified pediatric neurologist, Hannah is already stressed out. She’s not answering messages from her boyfriend, who wants her to move with him to his home in Argentina. And because her parents spoke only English to her when she was growing up, her Korean isn’t good enough to make sense of her grandmother’s cryptic message.
Not knowing what to do, Hannah hops a flight to Seoul to check in with her parents, who moved back to South Korea to care for her grandmother. But with her mother (Janet Song) grief-stricken on the couch, her bicycle-riding professor father (Hahn Cho) alarmed about her upcoming exam and marital prospects, and her super-chill brother, Dang (Gavin Lee), trying to figure out his next moves after his band broke up, she learns little beyond the grim news that her grandmother’s body still hasn’t been recovered after the old woman leaped from the roof of her building onto the North Korea side of the border.
The play, which opened on Saturday at the Fountain Theatre (in a collaboration with East West Players), might sound like a garden-variety domestic drama. But Park has tried to fashion her story into an epic fable incorporating the origin myth of Korea, the politics of a divided peninsula perpetually on the brink of war, the plight of endangered species in the DMZ’s land-mine-riddled forest, and the symbolism of a “dread gazebo,” which might have something to do with a legendary anecdote about a computer fantasy role-playing game of which I can tell you nothing.
That’s a lot to chew on in a play that runs roughly 90 minutes without intermission and that has its narrator routinely step out of the frame to explain the method of her dizzying storytelling. The “meta” aspect of “Hannah and the Dread Gazebo” often seems more defensive than playful, as if Park were fending off her own recognition of the weaknesses in her drama.
Those weaknesses have nothing to do with failing to abide by dusty conventions, which on today’s better stages, as Hamlet might say, are more honored in the breach than in the observance. “Hannah and the Dread Gazebo” has trouble finding a playwriting groove in part because Park seems to lose interest in her main character.
Dang hijacks the action with a mystical wild goose chase involving a mysterious old man in a trench coat stuffed with garlic bulbs (gamely played by Jully Lee in one of her multiple roles). The pursuit of this phantom leads him to Girl (Wonjung Kim), who appears out of nowhere and seems to be a perfect match, romantically and musically.
Hannah’s mother has her own surreal exploits, which are hastily and hazily treated. Her motivations are opaque, but then her behavior defies rational explanation, so perhaps it’s better that we don’t get many answers as to why she’s maxed out her credit card to buy a gazebo for the condo.
The play’s hyperactive rhythm seems especially cramped on the Fountain’s tiny stage. The production, directed by Jennifer Chang, makes vivid use of urban landscape projections on Yee Eun Nam’s darkened set. But the clumsy staging turns this into an unconvincing dream.
“Hannah and the Dread Gazebo” had its premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2017, but the play still feels like a workshop offering. Park’s desire to capture through her freewheeling dramaturgy the bifurcated reality of characters split between countries, cultures and languages is refreshing.
But it’s left to the actors to ground the play’s magic in realism. Cho and Song lend Hannah’s parents personal textures that keep them from being just generic types. Gavin Lee’s liveliness draws out Dang’s slacker charms so he’s more than a hip-hop cliché. And Hong offers the occasional glimpse of Hannah’s inner life as her control-freak character slowly learns that stories themselves are a kind of wish that our belief makes true.
When: 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, 8 p.m. Mondays; through Sept. 22
Info: (323) 663-1525; FountainTheatre.com
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes