Review: In Regretfully, So the Birds Are, Asian-Americans Search for Their Corner of the Sky

Julia Izumi’s whimsical new play makes its world premiere in a co-production between Playwrights Horizons and WP Theater.

Sasha Diamond, Shannon Tyo, and Sky Smith (standing behind couch) star in Julia Izumi’s Regretfully, So the Birds Are, directed by Kenny Koons for Playwrights Horizons and WP Theater, at Playwrights Horizons.
(© Chelcie Parry)


Just how quirky is Regretfully, So the Birds Are? Julia Izumi’s play, making its world premiere in a co-production with Playwrights Horizons and WP Theater, takes place in a world in which people can buy pieces of the sky as if they were pieces of land. It’s one in which characters talk to a snowman that is the reincarnation of their murdered dad and no one bats an eye. And as the title suggests, there are birds: talking-bird puppets manned by all six cast members at various points, who chafe at the humans buying up their sky and squawk loudly about it in bird council meetings. Maybe your tolerance for this kind of wall-to-wall tweeness is higher than mine.

At the center of this absurdist carnival are the three Whistler siblings, Illy (Sasha Diamond), Neel (Sky Smith), and Mora (Shannon Tyo). They were adopted by Elinore (Kristine Nielsen) and Cam (Gibson Frazier) in part because of the latter’s academic obsession with Asian cultures (he was a professor of Asian history for nearly four decades). To call the Whistler family “dysfunctional” would be an understatement. As the play begins, the mentally unstable Elinore is in jail for incinerating her husband after discovering his infidelities with a couple of students. It appears some of her mental instability has seeped into her adopted children: Not only are Illy and Neel romantically involved, but Mora, the oldest, is a so-called “human disaster” with a series of professional and personal troubles trailing her.

Sky Smith plays Neel, and Gibson Frazier plays Cam in Julia Izumi’s Regretfully, So the Birds Are, directed by Kenny Koons for Playwrights Horizons and WP Theater, at Playwrights Horizons.
(© Chelcie Parry)

After a conversation with the jailed Elinore, Mora impulsively flies to what she believes is her birth country of Cambodia (all Elinore told her was that it starts with a “c” and wasn’t China). This inspires Neel, still rattled by his realization that he is tone-deaf, to go on his own journey to Nebraska — which he mistakes for “the heart of country music,” Nashville — leaving Illy alone in their New Jersey home. Overseas, Mora meets a sixth character, Srey (Pearl Sun), believing she is her birth mother, but who is in fact impersonating her real birth mother, a Chinese-opera star of whom Srey is a huge fan.

As is evident above, Izumi has woven a wacky, tangled narrative web, adding to the mix of fourth-wall-breaking asides, moments of direct address, and even the occasional musical number. Director Jenny Koons leans even further into the wackiness. The device of having an offstage narrator announce the beginning of each of the three acts isn’t indicated in Izumi’s script, which implies this is the director’s own interpolation. Koons additionally encourages a rapid-fire screwball-comedy rhythm among her performers, with sound designer Megumi Katayama offering bits of cutesy interstitial music to put us in a sitcom frame of mind. You-Shin Chen’s set design similarly goes for comic exaggeration, with a tree house, a slightly charred living room, and a backyard presented like panels of a comic strip.

Kristine Nielsen plays a bird, and Sasha Diamond plays Illy in Julia Izumi’s Regretfully, So the Birds Are, directed by Kenny Koons for Playwrights Horizons and WP Theater, at Playwrights Horizons.
(© Chelcie Parry)

There are traces of fascinating ideas in Izumi’s play. Though adopted children searching for their birth parents isn’t exactly a fresh narrative, centering it specifically on adopted Asian-Americans attempting to discover their origins after being raised by white parents does give the story a novel cultural spin. All three Whistler siblings are trying to find their authentic selves in their own ways — a quest that the bizarre idea of people owning pieces of the sky metaphorically represents — and Izumi intelligently suggests that there may be no such thing as an authentic self in the first place: racially, internally, socially, and otherwise. A sharp critique of Asian fetishism also peeks through the play, with Cam Whistler the main target of the playwright’s satirical jabs. Among other things, he apparently adopted all three children in order to “save [them] from all the dangerous, evil people” in Asia.

Whatever thematic and/or emotional resonance Izumi’s exploration of cultural and personal authenticity might have carried, though, is drowned out by her terminal whimsy. The raucous comic energy this enthusiastic six-person cast brings to this material isn’t enough to disguise the fact that they are less characters than repositories for whatever off-the-wall notions and one-liners Izumi can come up with. She’s not above underlining some of her jokes by repetition, either; a silly joke about how Illy and Neel’s relationship isn’t a true “affair” because they’re not married doesn’t become any funnier when it’s repeated in a slightly different context the second time. However amusing individual moments are, the cumulative effect feels airless, less a thoughtful examination of the cultural issues it raises than a monument to its creator’s own perceived cleverness.

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