Ron Menzel and Tessa Klein in Chimerica, directed by Tom Muse, at Studio Theatre.
Ron Menzel and Tessa Klein in Chimerica, directed by David Muse, at Studio Theatre.
(© Igor Dmitry)

Lucy Kirkwood's Chimerica, now running at Studio Theatre, is the American premiere of a work previously produced in London. It begins in China in 1989, where a photojournalist, Joe Schofield (Ron Menzel), is on assignment for an American newspaper.

As he looks out over Tiananmen Square from the safety of his hotel room, Joe grows excited by what he sees in the street below: A single protester, holding two plastic shopping bags, stands – apparently unafraid – before four tanks. Joe snaps the scene, just before guards break into his room and take his camera.

That scene did in fact happen and that image is often used as a symbol of the heroism of the common man against authoritarianism. Kirkwood began with the photo and conjured up over 40 characters to be drawn into the story of her photographer and his "photo of a lifetime."

In Chimerica, Joe is still confounded by the anonymous protester 20 years after taking the photo. Inspired by the presidential campaign of 2012 and a wealth of international issues arising between China and America, Joe decides to find "Tank Man." He involves his friend Mel (Lee Sellars) and an acquaintance, Tessa (Tessa Klein), in his hunt, and he nearly drives his editor Frank (Paul Morella) crazy with his obsession. Most important, in his search for information, Joe calls on Zhang Lin (Rob Yang), his friend from the days when he was in China.

Chimerica moves at lightning speed, but director David Muse is always in control. He directs the action with cinematic flair, resulting in a show that feels part mystery, part action thriller, part love story. But even Muse can't disguise the fact that there is too much material in this epic story of life and death on two continents. The finest scenes in the play are the ones that explore the relationship between Zang Lin and his wife, from the time that they first meet and marry, but even those scenes are brief grace notes that are interspersed throughout the main narrative.

Yang is excellent as Zhang Lin, a gentle, bookish English teacher who is haunted by his wife's death. Yang comes across as the true protagonist of the piece, fervent in his concern for a neighbor who is dying because of air pollutants, and in his refusal to believe the government propaganda about air quality. Menzel is best at flaunting the "American" view of life, tossing off lines like, "Come to America. I can get you a green card," as if he runs the State Department. Menzel's Joe is agitated and high-strung, more interested in finding out something about his photo – and thus promoting his image – than he is in finding out the truth about "Tank Man."

Klein is a perfect mix of savviness and sexiness as the marketing specialist who tries to educate Americans on how to sell to the Chinese. Despite her appeal, there is little chemistry between Joe and Tessa: They share a night of passion but Joe gets distracted by his eternal goal and lets her slip away.

Sellars is a delight as Joe's worn-down photographer and buddy, who has seen it all. Morella is equally entertaining as the tough-talking New York newspaper editor who tries and fails to make the world an orderly place. Jacob Yeh, who plays young Zhang Lin, and Kelsey Wang, who plays his wife, create a lovely, lyrical antidote to the scenes of authoritarianism that existed after June 3, 1989.

The costumes, by Helen Huang, juxtapose life at its most drab in China with the glamour of life in America. Blythe Quinlan's set features a central, double-decker structure that juts out toward the audience, providing the actors with several playing areas. Oriental screens roll up and down on both sides, allowing for the division of space. Zachary Borovay's many projections on the rear and side walls are a reminder of the importance of photography to this play.

Kirkwood has written an extraordinary play about the mystery of the past and the way bureaucracy and censorship can change the truth into something very false. But the problem with this three-hour-plus production is that, out of the 38 scenes in the play, the less meaningful ones lack in feeling. If Chimerica could find a consistency in its tone, it would likely be the best play of 2015 to cross the pond.