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Broadway Review: `Far East’

This review by Simon Saltzman was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on

March 10, 1999. All rights reserved.

For some authors, a plot wherein a marriage turns sour,

an inter-racial affair unsettles a wealthy family, and a young homosexual

naval officer is blackmailed by his lover, might invite a bit of hair-raising

histrionics, heart-breaking recriminations, and at least the portent

of one horrific tragedy.

Not so for A.R. Gurney who, as the master dramatic chronicler of the

American WASP, knows how to make his conservative, polite, white-bread

characters stir our hearts and minds with the same well-bred panache

with which they stir their gin and tonics. Even as all the above predicaments

surge through Gurney’s sentimental new play "Far East," they

are reflected as temporary impediments and obstacles to characters

who, however tempted to change, ultimately must honor and obey the

prescribed dictates of a privileged society.

"Far East" offers no strategic surprises to anyone familiar

with such enduring sagas as "Madama Butterfly," "Love

Is a Many Splendored Thing," "From Here to Eternity,"

and "Sayonara." But that didn’t adversely affect my general

affection, even sympathy, for Gurney’s well-observed characters, undoubtedly

drawn from Gurney’s own memories as a naval officer.

In "Far East," Gurney takes us 6,000 miles away from the America

northeast, the customary setting for Gurney’s plays and his WASP characters

(including such superior efforts as "The Dining Room," "The

Cocktail Hour," and even "Darlene and the Guest Lecturer,"

the atypical, macabre double bill produced at George Street Playhouse

earlier this season). "Far East" is not Gurney at his best,

but it is an appealing play filled with the kind of brutally civilized

honesty that makes almost any trip to Gurneyland an adventure for

the dramatic epicure.

The play is set in 1953, on a Japanese naval base, during a lull in

the Korean War. It has not taken long for the adventurous "Sparky"

Watts, Lieutenant USNR, to find romance with a Japanese girl who works

at the base where he has been stationed.

Determined to break free of a stultifying comforts of life back home,

this Princeton-educated son of a wealthy Milwaukee family has enlisted

in order to seek, as he imagines, "significant life experiences,"

before his planned return to the Harvard Business School. There is

an appealing recklessness to Sparky, played winningly by Michael Hayden.

It prevails in the light of the amusing touches of self-confidence

with which he addresses his commanding officer, base Captain James

Anderson. It also prevails in the light of his uneasy relationship

with the significantly older, but very attractive, Julia (Lisa Emery),

the base Captain’s wife.

Julia’s initial interest in Sparky begins when she realizes

she knows his family. Reminded of his own impetuous youth, the now

tougher and wiser military man, Captain Anderson, takes an almost

paternal interest in the brash young Sparky who ignores the social

rules of the base. Bill Smitrovich is excellent as the tough, no-nonsense

commanding officer without a clue. Julia’s disapproval of Sparky’s

intense romance with the Japanese girl (unseen) is fueled by her knowledge

of her husband’s former and possibly unfinished affair with a Filipino

girl, and by her own attraction for Sparky.

Appalled that Sparky would chose a Japanese waitress over the available

American girls at the base, Julia writes a letter and spills the beans

to Sparky’s aunt, with whom she went to college. Emery is wonderful

as a model of patrician imagery, and particularly as draped in elegant

outfits by designer Jess Goldstein. But with even greater subtlety,

Emery also reveals Julia’s tortured, yet carefully contained, feelings

for Sparky.

In a subplot, Sparky discovers that his friend, ensign Bob Munger,

sympathetically played by Connor Trinneer, has shared classified top

secret information with his male Japanese lover, a Communist. This

episode, Bob’s subsequent trial and discharge, as well as a scene

in which Julia makes a dangerous after-hours visit to Sparky’s quarters,

have a way of appearing as casual interference with the playwright’s

real agenda, to show how the most drastic (mis)fortunes of love and

war cannot be depended upon to alter the fate of the privileged.

Daniel Sullivan’s direction is as polished as it is also stylishly

embroidered with Far-Eastern dramatic flourishes. Designer Thomas

Lynch has designed a handsome series of sliding panels that reflect

the Japanese esthetic. The use of three black-hooded stagehands in

a variety of small walk-ons adds an Asian touch, as does the kimono-clad

Japanese narrator (Sonny Brown) who speaks for all characters other

than the four principals. Despite its failure to be more than fitfully

profound or intermittently probing, "Far East" ends poignantly

as we see Sparky, Julia, and Bob, each in their own private silence,

contemplating the past and with a degree of certainty the future.

HHH

— Simon Saltzman

Far East, Newhouse Theater, 150 West 65 Street, 800-432-7250.

$50. To June 6.


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