Staid in Japan

"Junior officers quickly become disoriented in the Orient," Navy wife Julia Anderson warns newly arrived officer "Sparky" Watts in A.R. Gurney's play Far East. Indeed the New Theatre's production of this work seems to offer a heady brew of scandal, sex, and unrequited love, promising to leave the audience pleasantly...
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"Junior officers quickly become disoriented in the Orient," Navy wife Julia Anderson warns newly arrived officer "Sparky" Watts in A.R. Gurney's play Far East. Indeed the New Theatre's production of this work seems to offer a heady brew of scandal, sex, and unrequited love, promising to leave the audience pleasantly woozy and disoriented as well. Homosexuality in the military of the '50s, interracial relationships, a failing marriage, pilots discussing fighter planes and erections -- something for everyone!

Yet for all this dramatic potential, Far East is neither gripping nor hilarious. Gurney's work has been likened to that of novelist James Michener; in this play the comparison holds up but not in a good way. Far East is historically and sociologically accurate, the characters are interesting, and the plot makes plenty of entertaining twists. Yet somehow the work fails to engage the audience on a visceral level. Despite all the emotional and cultural time bombs exploding on stage, the viewer walks away completely unscathed.

The setting may be foreign, but the playwright is still on familiar cultural ground, cataloging once again the now-extinct class of Northeastern bluebloods. The problem is Gurney doesn't find anything to say here that he hasn't already said, brilliantly, in works like The Dining Room. These characters, like his others, cheat on each other and indulge in periodic moments of white guilt. They, too, deal with their repressed emotions by swinging nine irons at the country club and swilling gin and tonics afterward.

First produced in 1998, Far East is set on a naval base in American-occupied Japan from July through October of 1954. Gurney based it upon his own experience as a naval officer, and his insider's view consistently rings true. Especially telling are the privileges bestowed upon senior officers, from cashmere sweaters to cha-cha lessons.

When young, enthusiastic naval reserve officer Sparky Watts (David Mann) comes on the scene, both Captain Anderson (David Alt) and his wife, Julia (Barbara Sloan), take an interest in him. In Anderson, Sparky awakens nostalgia for the youthful folly of his bygone fighter-pilot days. The captain, stuck in a paper-pushing bureaucratic job, clearly sees himself in Sparky -- who has already hooked up with a Japanese girl and has a convertible shipped to him from the States.

Julia's interest in Sparky is rather more complicated. As a military wife at a time when relationships with "the natives" are prohibited, she considers it her job to "lure young officers into the fold" by finding them both a spot in the annual tennis tournament and a nice American girl. However, this particular junior officer stirs not only her maternal instincts but her sexual longing as well.

Gurney is famous for chipping away at the foundations of upper-class white America. Still, despite its emotionally loaded material, Far East never brings the drama home to the audience in any vital or relevant way. As written, it is a bland and mediocre look at days gone by, a curio to be held up to the light for examination and then thrown in the time capsule with Carry Nation's hatchet and Davy Crockett's coonskin cap. The actors in this production manage to entertain, but they lack the chemistry and charisma to rise above the limitations of the script.

Because theirs is the most nuanced relationship, Sparky and Julia carry this play's real potential for fireworks. As a friend of his upper-crust Milwaukee family, Julia essentially blackmails Sparky into staying close to her: If he will attend dance classes on the base once a week, she won't divulge his relationship with a Japanese woman. Julia allows his family to think of her as "Glinda the Good, who lured you out of the fleshpots of Asia and pointed you toward a nice American girl." But the actors quickly squander the potential of this pairing, flubbing some lines and volleying others back and forth in a very obvious and awkward way. One gets the feeling that Mann and Sloan didn't have enough time to internalize their lines -- which is a pity, because they have more stage time than any other couple in the play.

In 1999 Sloan played another chipper wife in New Theatre's production of Gurney's What I Did Last Summer and more recently Ruth in The Book of Ruth. Elegant and attractive, she looks the part of the poised blueblood -- with a touch of that bright-eyed Rosie the Riveter gumption. Even so, her one-on-one scenes with Mann, as well as those with Alt, feel hollow. For a woman who has supposedly been through a long line of relationships and who attempts to escape her troubled marriage, Julia's character never really resonates with any true emotion.

Likewise the smart-aleck charmer Sparky makes us laugh with his audacious take on military life (trips to the countryside with his Japanese girlfriend in a fancy convertible) and pulls at our heartstrings a little, but in the end his performance is comfortable without being very engaging. Our expectations perhaps wouldn't be so high if it weren't for the intensity of his character's situation -- an American in love with a Japanese woman in postwar Japan.

Sloan and Mann do make a deeper connection in a dance scene, in which Julia steps down from an "older, unavailable woman" role. Their sexual attraction begins to smolder, only to be quashed by Sparky's announcement that the love of his life is the Japanese girl who stands on the other side of the room serving punch. This scene gives a little insight into Julia's anti-Asian comments throughout the play. Her racism springs not from mere knee-jerk bigotry but from the resentment of an American woman who has taken pains to be strong and independent, only to find herself viewed as less desirable than the exoticized, stereotypically subservient Asian woman.

As Bob Munger, a homosexual officer who gets outed, Jonathan Cantor falls disappointingly flat. Although his character development necessarily entails gut-wrenching content, Cantor displays no gradation of energy from the Bob who is supposedly engaged to marry a woman to the homosexual officer who gets blackmailed and eventually exposed. His tone skips from mild-mannered to mildly annoyed to disoriented with little variation. Again there seems to be a real lack of connection between the actor and his character, which results in a palpable, off-putting dissonance.

Tara Reid once again displays her ability to metamorphose, as she did recently in the M Ensemble's Olivia's Opus. That role was meatier than the ones she takes on in this play, but her quick-change artistry here displays her admirable agility. From a Japanese servant, to the captain's assistant, to Julia's maid, to Munger's dime store defense representative, she provides a refreshingly charismatic presence. Also, Michael J. Miles' set design, with its tastefully designed wall hangings and black-lacquered tables, gets a high rating on the feng shui scale. The scene changes in which Reid and the stagehands (Lucia McArthur and Claudia LaTorre) affect supplicant, ceremonial gestures are also aesthetically pleasing.

Values such as "stick with your own kind" and "don't rock the boat" cross the socioeconomic strata of American culture. Though Far East's portrait of the upper-middle-class living its collective life in quiet desperation may be something of an anachronism, the values these characters strive both to reinforce and to rebel against still exist. But the script doesn't bring enough freshness or relevance to their struggles, and New Theatre's production does little to save this play from itself.

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