Dramashop serves food for thought with F.O.B
Directed by Kim Mancuso.
Written by David Henry Hwang.
Starring Eugene Chiang '95, Monica Gomi '94, Jose Sia Jr. '95.By Adam Lindsay
Dramashop's major spring production is, as can be expected, an excellent, well-presented, and thoughtful production of a thought-provoking play. F.O.B. (or, Fresh Off the Boat) is Abramowitz Lecturer David Henry Hwang's first play, written when he was a college senior. As such, it displays some flaws and inconsistencies, but it remains a remarkably rich work from which the director and small cast draw much meaning.
The work is set in the back room of a Chinese restaurant and is structured about a simple plot in which Steve (Eugene Chiang '95) pursues Grace (Monica Gomi '94) for a date. Grace must decide between the slightly overbearing and awkward, yet appealing, immigrant (F.O.B.) and her second-generation cousin Dale's (Jose Sia Jr. '95) prejudiced advice to stay away from any F.O.B. Within the basic structure, Hwang explores many issues, first turning it into Grace's choice between traditional Chinese and modern American ways. Grace must also come to terms with the injustices she perceives her immigrant family as suffering.
After seeing the show, I joined five other MIT theater aficionados for a discussion of the play and some Chinese food (due to an inexplicable craving). Although we had all enjoyed the production immensely and found it full of meaning, none of us, even in discussion, could put all the pieces together into a satisfyingly consistent whole.
The beginning of the play was dominated by monologues, first by Dale, addressing the audience and giving his prejudiced definition of a stereotypical F.O.B. Although this monologue is clear, those that followed, where Steve sometimes claimed to be Gwan Gung, a Chinese warrior god, and sometimes channeled the deity, are not so clear. My dinner mates and I couldn't always pick out which times were which. Likewise, Grace's soliloquies, in which she likens herself to a fictional female warrior, are unclear in that some didn't know when they were an aside to the audience or shared with Steve.
No matter what could or couldn't be divined from these mystical interludes, they are, on the whole, very effective. Sia's opening rap, in which he engages the audience with a resonant voice which begs to be put on stage, set up the play well. Whether channeling or not, Chiang and Gomi set apart their hero-identification with an air of wonder and magic. The often abrupt changes are also adroitly handled by the pair.
Having established that Grace and Steve, as first-generation immigrants, have much closer ties to their past than Dale, who denies almost all ties to China, the play proceeds to the body of the action. The threesome must navigate an evening with each other. Steve, somehow cogniscent of Dale's stereotypes, challenges him by putting on the airs of an F.O.B., adopting accented, broken English, and mannerisms which only reinforce Dale's prejudices. Steve thus toys with the intra-race bigot while Dale seizes every chance to humiliate the F.O.B. before him. Grace barely tolerates this testosterone-filled showdown between two undesirable alternatives. Fortunately, Steve is only pretending; sadly, Dale isn't. It is no surprise, then, that Grace accepts Steve for who he is, a beautiful, thoughtful, first-generation immigrant much like herself.
The on-stage dinner was full of fascinating and entertaining interplay between the three. Chiang's adoption of the stereotype was both effective and funny. Sia was both charismatic and appropriately vile as the bigoted Dale. Gomi convincingly transmitted Grace's hapless position as the one caught in the middle.
The dinner conversation focuses much more on Sia's acting because it is the first time the audience sees him. He shows promise, though his inexperience is apparent in the final lines. Dale repeats his stereotype of an F.O.B., after having it turned on its head by Steve, and he blindfolds himself. It is a wonderful symbolic gesture from Director Kim Mancuso, but Sia's delivery is a bit heavy-handed. Gomi and Chiang shine in their parts, exhibiting much chemistry. Chiang in particular has matured, showing himself to be quite natural on stage.
The successes of this production have much to do with Mancuso's direction. Her strong concepts, such as having the actors never physically leave the stage during exits and realizing challenging elements in the script like the many varied soliloquies, immensely boost the production. The framework is both stylized and accessible. Mancuso also makes clear David Henry Hwang's somewhat unpolished first attempt at drama, despite some lack of clarity at points in the script (why does Steve personify Grace's frustrations at how her parents were treated?). The flawless direction did its best with the slightly-flawed script.
The technical aspects of the show all support the action on stage. The set, designed by Jacqueline Brener '96, was basic but well dressed, and it immediately caught the attention of the audience. Amazingly, authentic Chinese restaurant smells also greeted the entering audience. The lights were effective in delineating the changes between action and soliloquy, but not always correctly focused on the action on stage. The inappropriately modern tape player used on stage was a minor, but slightly disturbing, anachronism in the production, considering that the dialog had a late seventies feel.
Of special note is the novel program design. Not only are the Director's Notes effective in providing background for some concepts in the play, but junior Eddie Kohler's design is a wonderful parody of a Chinese restaurant's take-out menu.
Although one cannot fully digest all that is set on stage in Dramashop's excellent production, one still is left satisfied by the thought-provoking and entertaining feast. In any case, F.O.B. provides much food for thought. As we contemplated our dinner after the show, we realized that we couldn't identify all the specific ingredients, but we all agreed that it tasted good as a whole.