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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the March 10, 2004 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Review: ‘Foreign Exchange’

Despite what might be perceived as a conflict of interest, my wife LucyAnn Saltzman, who serves as publicity director for Playwrights Theater of New Jersey, urged me to attend the world premiere of the company’s production of a new play, “Foreign Exchange” by Peter Hays. After seeing what I found to be an arresting and moving production, I agreed that the production, on stage in Madison through Sunday, March 14, deserves attention.

A memorial at Manzanar, commemorating the Japanese-American citizens and resident Japanese aliens interred during World War II, is prominent in designer Michael Forrest Kurtz’ landscape of rocks and wooden decks that also serves as a frame for the play’s various locations. In it, Luther Lebrecque (Ames Adamson), an American man, and Karen Fukuta (Grace Hsu), a Japanese woman, are brought together in business. They are also drawn together by their mutual attraction for each other. And they are both curiously subject to the frequent and troubling visitations of their respective ancestors, his grandfather and her grandmother.

The play is concerned with how the ancestors’ troubled souls have been pressed into action with the budding of Luther and Karen’s relationship as close co-workers in the intense world of currency trading and also as potentially intense lovers. As a multi-layered play that moves between the past and present including dialogue between the living and the dead, “Foreign Exchange,” is, in the way it recalls an infamous chapter in American history, amazingly timely and topical.

Despite the imposing, and often disarming, metaphysical presence of the grandparents, the play is also deeply concerned with reality in the shadow of racism. Director John Pietrowski brings the overlapping worlds together with an artistic ease. Set in the 1980s, the play begins excitingly in the American bank where Luther has established himself as a successful trader of dollars and yen in the tens of millions. Luther’s motor-mouthed calls to buy and sell are every bit as impressive as is his open-mouthed reaction to the quick learning Japanese-American Karen, whose efficiency is as appealing to him as is her attractiveness.

As if in direct response to their growing mutual respect and fondness comes the disapproval of Karen’s grandmother Aya Yakamura (Jo Yang) and Luther’s grandfather Hank Lebrecque (Fred Burrell), who are constantly unnerving to Karen and Luther. Having died while incarcerated in a detainment camp, Aya is a ghost, although an impishly beguiling soul who refuses to let her granddaughter forget the humiliation, pain, and suffering her family endured when their property and rights were taken away.

In her determination to make Karen respect and reflect upon the family history in America, Aya intrudes unmercifully into Karen’s mind. Without remorse or regret for his part in building the concentration camps and for helping in the forced incarceration of Japanese Americans, Hank is determined to defend his actions and those of his government during World War II.

The play does a rather commendable job in showing us how two people learn to redefine themselves while also becoming unwitting victims of their own insensitive remarks and foolish actions. Into the mix comes the unsettling presence of a Japanese banker, Yoshi Shimada (Jun Kim), whose agenda involves Karen’s future as well as that of the bank itself. The complex play responds as comfortably to Pietrowski’s fine direction, as do the actors.

Ranging from the work, love, or guilt-consumed Luther, Adamson gets it right whether in the heat of frenetic trading, the clumsiness and tentativeness of his romance with the cautious Karen, or when he is consumed with guilt of his grandfather’s actions. Hsu is lovely to begin with, but more importantly tough and touching as Karen, a young woman coping with some difficult transitions including the recent death of her mother. Yang is a delight as the aggressive grandmother who will not rest until she needles her way into her granddaughter’s heart.

Burrell is perfect as Luther’s blustery and unremorseful grandfather determined to free Luther from his feelings of collective complicity. And I expect that Kim’s stolid performance, as a mysterious Japanese banker will continue to evolve. Except for a resolve that goes on for about 20 minutes too long, the play, inspired by the author’s own family history, will most certainly give you reason to think about all the people currently being held in internment camps without being charged with any crime and without benefit of legal counsel.

— Simon Saltzman

Foreign Exchange, Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey, 33 Green Village Road, Madison, 973-514-1787. $25 & $27.50. Runs through Sunday, March 14.


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