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Bess Wohl, Will McCormack (standing),
and Tyler Francavilla in Chinese Friends
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
One has to wonder if Jon Robin Baitz meant his new play, Chinese Friends, to be a comedy rather than a serious, cautionary drama that's supposed to be suspenseful, politically engaged, and unpredictable. The playright succeeds on that last front but only because the plot twists that he throws into the piece -- particularly in its last five minutes -- are so absurd as to provoke the laughter of disbelief.

Baitz sets his play in Autumn 2030. It's a dystopian future in which American society has crumbled and a former politico named Arthur Brice (Peter Strauss) has retreated to a remote cabin where he hoards discs filled with incriminating audio recordings of his former colleagues. As the play opens, he is visted by his estranged son Ajax (Tyler Francavilla), who arrives in the company of his friends Stephan (Will McCormack) and Alegra (Bess Wohl). Brice, immediately suspicious of the strangers, greets them at gunpoint.

While Brice at first seems to be overreacting, his paranoia is justified: Stephan and Alegra are not what they initially appear to be. Nor, for that matter, is Ajax. Baitz incorporates a number of plot twists throughout the play that probably should not be revealed in a review. Let's just say that, by the end of the first act, Brice is confronted in a most unfriendly fashion regarding crimes that he may have committed in his political past.

Since the play is set in the near future, Baitz requires a bit more exposition than normal to catch us up on the social and political changes that have occurred in the intervening years -- but, surely, we didn't need this much exposition! Furthermore, a lot of what we hear is revealed to be a cover story for the three youths and it's therefore difficult to determine how much, if any, of the information gleaned in the first 20 minutes of the play is credible.

It doesn't help matters that Baitz's dialogue is stilted and unconvincing. The characters rarely engage in any emotionally grounded exchanges; instead, they make remarks such as "Nihilism is very hard work." Oddly, they also compare themselves to Hotspur from Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part One. As directed by Robert Egan, the actors are unable to overcome the limitations of the writing and they seem unsure of how certain lines should be delivered. One character says to another, "You're not very nice sometimes." Since the individual thus chided had earlier wielded a fireplace poker with the intent of bashing in the head of another character, this is a rather obvious statement -- yet the actors play the moment seriously even as the audience groans with laughter.

Another pitfall in the production is that it includes several long sequences devoted to playing excerpts from Brice's discs as well as another recording that Ajax brought with him. The stage action stops dead in its tracks as all of the characters listen to the pre-recorded dialogue. While there are some on-stage reactions to the audio revelations, these segments are handled poorly and the actors seem adrift.

This observation is meant as no disrespect to sound designer Obadiah Eaves, who also contributes music of his own composition to the show. An ethereal piece that incorporates sounds of nature, heard during the play's opening moments, is particularly effective. Santo Loquasto's scenic designs are nicely rendered: Branches of a tree protrude from the ceiling, suggesting the wooded area to which Brice has retreated, yet the interior of the cabin is elegantly designed. This makes it clear that, despite Brice's renouncement of his former life, he is not exactly roughing it.

Peter Strauss and Bess Wohl in Chinese Friends
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Baitz's attempts to examine the disconnection between political ideals and actions is admirable but ultimately muddled. For example, Ajax's final speech to his father suggests that his generation will do things differently -- but since Baitz has taken pains to establish that Brice used to talk a good game and advocated a progressive humanist doctrine while at the same time committing reprehensible deeds, it's unlikely that Ajax will be successful. If we judge him by his actions and not his words, as he is so quick to judge his father, then we feel that nothing will change in the slightest.

For those of you who are wondering about the play's title, it refers to a board game more commonly known as Reversi or Othello. Baitz uses it as a metaphorical cudgel, hammering home a point about quick reversals and changing of sides within the game. Early on, we discover that Brice is fond of playing an online version and claims with pride that he never loses. The game is brought up at several other points in the action, notably at moments when a reversal occurs in one side's logical argument or the allegiances within the quartet of characters seems to shift. It's a heavy-handed plot device that contributes to some of the play's unintentional humor.

Chinese Friends is not the worst thing that I've seen on stage this year but it is perhaps the most disappointing. Baitz has always struck me as a highly intelligent playwright with a keen understanding of character and dramatic structure but none of that is in evidence in his latest play, which seems more like the work of an amateur.

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