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Despite the best efforts of Sandra Oh and a compulsively watchable cast, Diana Son's disappointing drama feels like a failed TV pilot. logo
Sandra Oh and Kevin Carroll in Satellites
(Photo © Michal Daniel)
The Public Theater's production of the bracing urban drama Stop Kiss was my first exposure to the playwright Diana Son and the stage talents of actress Sandra Oh, and it remains a vivid memory seven-and-a-half years later. Unfortunately, Satellites, the long-awaited re-teaming of the playwright and actress, is unlikely to stay with most theatergoers for seven-and-half minutes, despite the work of a top-notch cast.

In this clearly well-meaning and autobiographically-inspired work, Son has some very salient points to make about race, the importance of personal history, and the struggle to have it all; but she makes them too blatantly. Moreover, both the play and the production, under Michael Greif's direction, have the feel of a television pilot, down to the all-too-sudden "happy ending" that seems less like a well-earned conclusion and more a way to finish off this particular story just in time for the next episode. (Indeed, with commericals, the show would run just two hours -- perfect pilot-length.)

Indeed, the most memorable aspect of Satellites may be Mark Wendland's technically complex set, which constantly slides to-and-fro and back-and-forth to expose the various aspects of the multi-level Brooklyn brownstone into which Nina (Oh), a succesful architect, her African-American husband Miles (Kevin Carroll), and their baby daughter Hannah have just moved. Often, Greif and Wendland isolate just one area of the house, including the basement floor that Nina and her business partner Kit (Johanna Day) use as an office. It's a mostly effective strategy except that, in some vital instances, the staging creates an obstructed view from house left.

Nina, who has had to return to work sooner than she wanted, and Miles, who has recently lost his job as a producer of interactive corporate Web sites, are not surprisingly cracking under the strain of new parenthood and home ownership. Furthermore, Miles, though otherwise a seemingly good fellow, is completely reluctant to hold his daughter, and the sleep-deprived Nina is under pressure to finish a model for a prestigious international contest. Already emotionally overburned, the pair soon have to deal with the sudden arrivals of Miles' white brother Eric (Clarke Thorell) -- Miles was adopted by his family at birth -- and Reggie (Ron Cephas Jones), a busybody neighbor who, like Eric, might either be a con man or a genuinely decent fellow.

Completing and complicating the picture is Mrs. Chae (Satya Lee), the grandmotherly Korean nanny whom Nina hires in part to connect her and Hannah to their past, but who ultimately causes Nina to re-examine her mixed feelings about her heritage and her assimilation. Meanwhile, Miles is undergoing his own spiritual crisis, realizing that as someone who has been adopted and has little knowledge of his birth parents, he may be passing on a tainted legacy to his daughter.

The first half of this 95-minute one-act rambles along, too subtly setting up the confrontations to come. When they do arrive, the characters burst with long-held grievances. Kit, 40 and still single, sees her long-time friend's new commitment to motherhood as threatening to destroy their business. Reggie unleashes the disdain he has for the yuppies who have finally come around to gentrifying his failing neighborhood, even as he acknowledges that things weren't better back in the day. Miles and Eric engage in one of those fraternal "Mommy liked you better" arguments, and Nina unleashes her fury on all who resent how baby Hannah has changed their lives. While the dialogue in these scenes crackles, the arguments are precisely articulated in a way that real people in moments of extreme anger don't usually manage.

Even in the play's weakest moments, the six-member cast remains compulsively watchable. Carroll nicely limns the frustrated Miles, while Thorell, best known for his nice-guy work in musicals (such as Hairspray), proves to have considerable charisma and dramatic chops as Eric. Better still, Day finds the ideal combination of brittleness and humor for Kit, Jones gives an extraordinarily dignified and detailed performance as the potentially problematic Reggie, and Lee provides real depth to Mrs. Chaae.

At the center of these satellites is Oh, who gives a finely calibrated performance as the flinty Nina. A true master of the perfect facial expression, Oh can be both exasperating and heartbreaking. While Nina rarely asks for sympathy -- until one pivotal moment -- she nevertheless earns it. And so do Oh and her fellow actors. They almost, but not quite, make this troubled play more than an earthbound experience.

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