Angela Lin in Sake with the Haiku Geisha
Photo © David Gochfeld
Angela Lin in Sake with the Haiku Geisha
Photo © David Gochfeld
If there were an award for "Most Japanese Cultural Signifiers in the Title of an Off-Broadway Show," Randall David Cook's Sake with the Haiku Geisha would win it hands down. This is the dramatic equivalent of naming a Japanese restaurant "Teriyaki Boy"; you don't walk in expecting an authentic experience. As a result, you are inclined to forgive the occasional moments of broad caricature, and you're surprised that the play contains some depth and insight.

Sake is set in Japan in the early 1990s, a fact that Cook subtly reveals through pointed references to then-president George H.W. Bush vomiting on the Japanese prime minister. It follows the participants of a foreign language exchange program on the day of their "sayonara party." Cook flashes back on their experiences through five vignettes. In one, a prim British girl named Charlotte Linscott writes letters to her grandmother, complaining about disappointments with the program. In another, Parker Hamilton has just escaped his suffocating Southern Baptist hometown only to come out of the closet in a small town where nobody ever seems to have encountered a homosexual. Then there's Canadian university professor Brianna MacInnis, who tried to leave her life back home after her boyfriend died in a car accident, only to find that the ghosts of her past are still following her -- literally.

The last two vignettes involve two of the Japanese locals, Ichihiro Hashimoto and Sumiko Matsushita. Ichihiro is the grandson of Hiroshima survivors, whose poignant story of how he became an English teacher will remain etched in theatergoers' memories long after they have seen this play. Sumiko is the mother of the "Haiku Geisha" of the title, but her story is a dusty variation on Madame Butterfly. The geisha herself speaks in the form of 5-7-5 syllable haiku poems to loosely connect the anecdotes. Though this final scene ends the play on a clichéd and sentimental note, the best moments of the script avoid such traps. Although the horrors of the atom bomb have been recounted time and again, Cook looks at it the subject from the viewpoint of the survivors who are struggling to forgive the bombers.

Seven actors play all of the roles, including some minor characters. David Shih's portrayal of Ichihiro is a standout; at first stern and guarded, he reveals the character's vulnerability in subtle ways that leave the audience moved and dazzled. Emma Bowers turns Charlotte, who could have been an overly broad stereotype of a stuffy Brit, into an empathetic and likeable figure. Fiona Gallagher has charm and cheek as Brianna, but the actress needs a dialect coach to help her credibly portray someone from Canada's most rural province. Similarly, though Jeremy Hollingworth is convincing as a gay Southerner, his Irish tourist character sounds like he's from Australia.

Sala Iwamatsu delivers her lines in a wonderfully deadpan way, particularly when playing an interviewer who asks ridiculously personal questions. Ikuma Isaac is that rare actor who can play such disparate roles as an arrogant art professor, a pre-op transexual, and an unforgiving father with equal assurance. Finally, Angela Lin is engaging as the Haiku Geisha and her mother; one only wishes that she had been given better material.

Alex Lippard has directed the production with imagination and assuredness, switching back and forth between Western and Japanese theatrical conventions. This fusion of styles is reflected in the design elements of the show: David Newell's set calls to mind a Noh Theater stage, Lucas Benjaminh Krech's lighting switches between naturalistic effects and the use of footlights, and Charlene Alexis Gross' costumes are attractive. Sake with the Haiku Geisha is a confident first production by the Gotham Stage Company. As for Cook, who is sure to have a promising career, I offer him the following haiku:

A prodigious start.
Do not fall back on gimmicks;
Flesh out characters.