Living in the middle of nowhere is no longer a guarantee you'll be spared the ravages of the outside world. Pop culture trends, ideals of beauty, and even changes in gender and familial expectations have a habit of filtering into even the farthest reaches of the United States and beyond. How can you ever discover yourself in such a climate, and if you can't, how will you be able to adjust when and if that becomes necessary?
Playwright Julia Cho spends 90 minutes asking that question in BFE, which just opened at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater. Gordon Edelstein has directed the Playwrights Horizons production, and has ably highlighted all the script's provocative - and ponderous - moments, creating a show that amuses as it disturbs and cradles as it lurches. It's a strong production of a play that, despite its best intentions, gets bogged down in only partially exploring too many ideas and not answering enough of the questions it asks.
For while the story focuses on Panny (Olivia Oguma), a 14-year-old Asian girl living in a tiny Arizona town, the play is really concerned with the identity crises plaguing each of its central characters. Panny, who just entered high school, is always concerned with her appearance, which can't live up to the buxom blonde standards of her friend Nancy (Kel Martin); Panny's mother Isabel (Kate Rigg), who underwent plastic surgery following an accident, is now approaching 40 and doubting her attractiveness; Lefty (James Saito), Isabel's brother and Panny's de facto father figure, is obsessed with Dungeons and Dragons and wants a family of his own.
Cho, determined to pack as much into the play as possible, gives each of them a romantic interest: Panny's is Hugo (James McMenamin), a young man she meets and gets to know over the phone, but refuses to meet in person; Lefty's is Evvie (Karen Kandel), an African-American department store clerk who's already raised a family and wants to settle down; Isabel's is Jack (Jeremy Hollingworth), a young pizza delivery boy who just happens to look like her ideal man, General Douglas MacArthur. The interactions between the characters do, at least, result in a panoramic view of how self-identity (here, almost exclusively of the negative kind) can influence relationships.
But Cho's plotting and writing are mostly dutiful at best; she most sympathizes with, and thus best defines, Panny, and gives her the most solid and most believable foundation, on which Oguma builds an impressive, likable performance. But Isabel and Lefty seem more like tools that allow Cho to address Asian assimilation in America: Isabel is defined primarily by a lot of Blanche DuBois-style vamping, which Rigg makes blithely amusing at first, but is incapable of maintaining over several scenes; Lefty's paternal confusion starts old and has nowhere to go, especially with the dopey, emotionally evasive performance Saito gives.
The playwright better makes her points about the homogenizing effects of American culture with Hae-Yoon (Sue Jean Kim), Panny's Korean pen pal, whose explanations of home life and dating in her country cleverly contrast with what Panny's experiencing. It helps that Kim, energetic and sprightly, is used sparingly, and only to provide a dash of some necessary outside commentary, but her scenes do have a jarring effect on the rest of the play that tighter writing and more vivid performances from the subsidiary players could greatly reduce.
BFE is at its best when it's doing the least: The abduction subplot, for example, helps provide the play with a stirring climax, but almost entirely lacks the suspense and sense of reality that make many of Panny's everyday interactions with her family and friends work as well as they do. Cho, at her best tackling simpler emotional situations, does manage to provide a few gems of characterological insight: Isabel succinctly, amusingly defines her credo as "True beauty is not born, it's an act of will," and Panny has a few heartfelt monologues that nicely pinpoint for us the story and her feelings.
But the play is best typified by Takeshi Kata's set, the most prominent feature of which is the subtly glowing, purple and orange backdrop that depicts sunset over a vast expanse of Arizona desert: there's a lot to see, but a great deal of it is dry and empty. Kata's work suggests the ideal setting for a play called BFE - an abbreviation of a slang term (that won't be printed here) meaning "the middle of nowhere," with the "E" standing for "Egypt" - one can't help but wish Cho had herself better located the people and events she wished to chronicle.