Corrections or additions?
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
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.
— Simon Saltzman
$50. To June 6.
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.