KPBS AIRDATE: OCTOBER 8, 1999
A budding, young Chinese-American architect takes a business trip to Singapore. He meets a woman, they go to bed, and before you know it, she’s pregnant, they’re married, and they’re winging their way back to America, to start a life together in the Land of Opportunity. That’s the opening sequence in “Wonderland,” a memory play narrated by the Young Man who is the grownup son in a doomed family.
The archetypal characters are known to us only as Man, Woman, Son and Young Man — because this is not just an Asian story, or an immigrant story. “Wonderland,” an L.A. shopping mall designed by the Man, is just another name for the American Dream, and this family watches that dream come crashing down in nightmarish ways. Willy Loman meets the Master Builder in this melancholic meditation on success, morality, motherhood, mediocrity, identity, bigotry, fathers and sons. There’s a lot on playwright Chay Yew’s mind, and he reveals it in bright splashes of humor washed over huge swaths of dark rumination.
The structure of his latest play resembles his previous creation, “Porcelain,” mounted in a starkly unforgettable production five years ago at Diversionary Theatre. Once again, brutal events are retold primarily in monologues and soliloquies. The power of the words mesmerizes the audience, and provocative staging underscores the poetry. Here, Yew’s lyrical language is breathtaking at times, his images of California so gorgeous and precise you can smell the salt air. The ocean is almost a palpable presence in Rachel Hauck’s dramatic set design — a huge wall with a window cutout, with a wood floor fanning out in painterly perspective. Through that window, we see, thanks to Geoff Korf’s beautiful, moody lighting, the sea and sky change with the passage of time.
The Man looks through the window and sees a “carpet of gold” spread out upon the water, beckoning him to greatness. In Lisa Peterson’s wonderfully imaginative, minimalist staging, we watch the Son grow up, we see the Mother try to assimilate by emulating Elizabeth Taylor, forcing her son to help her re-enact scenes from the movies. We observe the Man rise and fall like the ocean waves, ultimately drowning in his failure — as an architect, a husband and a father.
Through it all, focusing our attention and our emotion, a very solid Joel de la Fuente plays the dispassionate Young Man, looking back on his life and his family, framing the story by describing a series of close-ups, wide-shots, smash-cuts and blurs. As his father, Sab Shimono is an understated presence, a sad and solitary Everyman, a father too busy to help rear his son and too disappointed in the result of his procreation. Tsai Chin is marvelous as the Mother Courage of the piece — 20% clueless immigrant, 80% shrew, 100% survivor. Alec Mapa, despite a back injury that delayed the play’s opening, appeared as fit, agile and arresting as he did last year in the Playhouse premiere of “Dogeaters.” He achingly portrays a put-upon young boy growing into a restless, lost and misguided adolescent.
“Wonderland,” a world premiere, is semi-autobiographical. Like the Woman in the play, Chay Yew was born in Singapore. Like the Son and his mother, he is enormously influenced by American pop-culture. Like the Young Man, he wants to create art. But this new work still needs some work; the second act is too long, the endings — the one concerning a childhood friend and the one about the mother — are too neat, too facile, too unworthy of the rest of this powerful piece. Still, even in its present form, Yew has written a haunting play of tender, painful truths that uncover the dark shadows beyond the deceptive brilliance of the California sun, the Hollywood klieg lights and the beacon of Lady Liberty.
©1999 Patté Productions Inc.