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The Nanjing Race

Reggie Cheong-Leen's smart, funny, and engaging play about a Japanese-American businessman traveling in China makes its long overdue New York premiere.

By New York City
Marcus Ho and James Chen inThe Nanjing Race
(© Kim T. Sharp)
Marcus Ho and James Chen inThe Nanjing Race
(© Kim T. Sharp)
Named Best Regional Play by the American Theatre Critics' Association when it debuted in 1994, Reggie Cheong-Leen's The Nanjing Race is only now making its New York premiere, courtesy of Abingdon Theatre Company. Brian Tom O'Connor stages the smart, funny, and engaging show (seen here in a slightly updated version) in the Abingdon's tiny Dorothy Strelsin Theatre, with the close proximity of the actors adding to the intimate feel of the work.

Set in 1988, the play unfolds primarily in a cheap hotel in Nanjing, China. Philip (Marcus Ho), a Japanese-American businessman, is representing his firm and trying to negotiate good rates at an industrial fair in the city. His boss believes that his Asian heritage will be an advantage, although Philip discovers to his frustration that he is either mistaken for local Chinese or that his ethnicity could cause even more problems, due to memories of Japanese atrocities in Nanjing during World War II.

Philip's presence represents something quite different for two hotel workers, rather patronizingly labeled "floor-boys," who are the only other onstage characters within the play. Yu Ahn (Ian Wen) is willing to go to great lengths -- including selling his own kidney to help treat Philip's dying mother -- in order to get Philip to sponsor him for American citizenship. However, Philip is much more interested in Bao (James Chen), and the two men's mutual sexual attraction is evident from their first encounter.

Chen has a marvelously understated quality that allows him to achieve subtle layers of meaning and depths of feeling in his characterization of Bao. Ho has a strong presence, but occasionally plays his intentions too much on the surface. Wen does a fine job demonstrating Yu Ahn's eagerness to please, without devolving into caricature.

Both floor-boys speak with accents in their exchanges with Philip, but the scenes that feature just the two of them are spoken without accents, to indicate that they are now talking in their native tongue. This clever staging conceit allows the audience to quickly and clearly see the class divisions within the play. Although Philip remains a sympathetic figure throughout, his arrogance is also evident, even in (and perhaps especially) his interactions with Bao, as he doesn't seem to be fully aware of the unequal power dynamic of their relationship.

A few poetic monologues are scattered throughout the play, but Cheong-Leen's strength is in his slightly ironic dialogue, which the cast nicely brings to life. Admittedly, the playwright overstates some of his themes, particularly when Philip vents about his experiences, but overall the show deftly negotiates the complexity of race, politics, citizenship, and desire.


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