Peter Kim and James Saito in American Hwangap
(© Matt Zugale)
Peter Kim and James Saito in American Hwangap
(© Matt Zugale)
A Korean birthday celebration -- or "Hwangap" as it is called -- should be a joyous, festive occasion, with family and friends celebrating the accomplishments of the honoree. However, a number of complications beset the one in Lloyd Suh's amusing yet poignant comedy American Hwangap, being given a first-rate production by The Play Company and Ma-Yi Theater at The Wild Project.

Patriarch Min Suk Chun (James Saito) left his wife and three children 15 years ago in America while he returned to Korea. His U.S. homecoming in a Texas suburb in 2008 is a bittersweet reunion with the family he abandoned, exposing the emotional scars that they all bear.

Ralph (Peter Kim), at age 29, still lives in his mother's basement due to a "nervous situation" that makes it difficult for him to function in the world. Whether or not that can be directly traced to Chun's departure is left vague, but what is clear is that Ralph longs for a father figure, and is the most receptive to Chun's return. Daughter Esther (Michi Barall) is more conflicted. She has a lot of anger towards her father which she barely suppresses -- and sometimes doesn't bother to do so. Oldest son David (Hoon Lee) pretends not to care, but there's both rage and love behind his cool facade. Chun's ex-wife Mary (Mia Katigbak) is welcoming, but also worried that she'll fall back into old patterns of behavior in relation to this man whom she still cares for. Chun, himself, is seeking either redemption or forgiveness -- or maybe just a way to fix his shattered life.

Suh strikes just the right balance between humor and deeply felt emotion. His dialogue not only captures what the characters express to one another, but also hint at the subtextual thoughts that they're unable to say. The playwright also sets up an effective parallel between North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's desire to reunify North and South Korea, with Chun's desire to reconnect with his family. "Many people in Korea want reunification, but so divide so many years, hope for together but philosophy so different," says Chun. In the end, while the play does not resolve all the conflicts it introduces, it does offer the possibility of reconciliation, although no guarantee that it will actually come to pass.

Director Trip Cullman elicits fine performances from his ensemble cast, particularly Kim as the child-like Ralph and Lee as the hyper-articulate David. Barall sometimes seems to be indicating her character's emotions a little too obviously, but she's also able to sink her teeth into the more dramatic scenes, especially Esther's late-in-the-play confrontation with her father. Katigbak has the most thinly written part, but nevertheless fills it admirably. Saito plays Chun with an outward joviality and optimism that makes it seem like he has no shame for his past actions, but which might merely be a facade hiding deeper reservoirs of feeling.

Erik Flatmo's simple-seeming set is surprisingly versatile, and able to suggest a myriad of locations with just a few re-arranged pieces of furniture or addition of small set units. For example, a cut-out of a boat flown in while Kim and Saito sit on a tabletop ingeniously sets the scene for a father-son fishing trip. Junghyun Georgie Lee's costumes, Paul Whitaker's lighting, and Fitz Patton's sound design also all contribute to the overall effectiveness of the piece.