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This study of unhappy, contemporary Japanese makes it hard to empathize with its characters. logo
Steven Boyer, Joseph Midyett, Kira Sternbach,
and Jessica Almasy in Enjoy
(© Carol Rosegg)
The neurotic angst, aimlessness, ageist bigotry, and navel-gazing egoism of contemporary Japanese twenty- and thirtysomethings is shown in painful relief in the inarticulate sputterings of Toshiki Okada's Enjoy, now being presented by The Play Company at 59E59 Theaters.

While there's certainly dramatic pith in Enjoy which is not specific to Japan -- many theatergoers should be able to identify with the characters' fears of aging and homelessness -- the work's cloying layers of artifice make it exceedingly difficult to experience any real empathy.

The play unfolds in the unfurnished break room of a manga (comic book) café (grimly designed by Mimi Lien); but the performers inhabit the space not in any realistic sense, but rather in a sort of existential one. The room is a sort of metaphorical purgatory for these people who are drifting through life where they share a series of interlocking stories. As the minutiae of the characters' lives are detailed, the actors periodically switch roles as they relate their tales. Although the conceit emphasizes the disconnect that the characters have from their world, it's also one which disorients and which is made more confusing by a habit they have of referring to themselves in the third person.

Some of the tales have true emotional heft, such as the brutal breakup between Mizuno, one of the store's employees, and his girlfriend Maeno after he's bumped into a grade-school friend, now seemingly a successful businessman. The encounter sends Mizuno into a depression about what he has not accomplished in his life, and instead of sympathizing, Maeno uses his troubled state as a reason to cruelly dump him.

Other sequences in the play explore the bitter condescension that some of the younger characters have for their older co-workers. A romance develops between the 30-year-old Mizuno and the 22-year-old Ogawa, a new employee at the store, which causes further ripples of self-examination among Mizuno's peers, as they compare their own achievements (or lack thereof) with his and hers.

The characters' scattered thought and speech patterns (brought to life with colloquial and American specificity in Aya Ogawa's translation) ultimately grates. And the ways in which the performers physicalize their characters' interior thoughts and feelings -- often through twitches, rolling on the floor, and tracing the walls of the space with their bodies -- proves to be the biggest misstep in director Dan Rothenberg's sluggish staging.

Thankfully, the 10-person ensemble brings a zealous commitment to the play. Mary McCool is particularly deft at playing Mizuno during the early part of the breakup scene; Alex Torra ably switches between playing Mizuno and his long-forgotten school chum; Steven Boyer and Joseph Midyett imbue two characters with appropriately stinging youthful arrogance; and Jessica Almasy portrays a sweet innocent with decidedly heartfelt -- and incredibly welcome -- charm.


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