In case you hadn't heard, Brooklyn has become a war zone. However, it's not guns or bombs that have ravaged this once-peaceful borough. It's identity crises, stretching as far as the eye can see, that have created the bleak landscape of the setting of Diana Son's Satellites, which just opened at the Public Theater.
The rock that smashes through a plate-glass window early on seems to herald a story in which differences of opinion will strictly be an us-versus-them struggle. But no. That event, ostensibly a seminal one for mixed-race couple Miles and Nina and the expensive brownstone they've just purchased, is merely the catalyst for the violent explosions that chain throughout the interior beings of the inhabitants of Son's play.
This is familiar territory for the playwright, whose breakthrough 1998 play Stop Kiss (also produced at The Public) gracefully examined questions of how and whom to love in an at best tacitly peaceful city. Satellites continues her explorations, and proves a highly provocative follow-up for its willingness to both sympathize with and decry its characters' frantic needs to make sense of themselves and the world around them.
But that's not easy for anyone. Neither Nina (Sandra Oh) nor Miles (Kevin Carroll) can speak definitively of their pasts: She was raised American, taught essentially to deny her Korean background; he was born to a heroin-addicted mother, and raised by a white family. Now she's a successful architect, trying to get back in the swing of things after giving birth to their daughter; he was laid off from a lucrative computer job just before the baby was born, and feels as unable to contribute to the family emotionally as he is financially.
Miles's white brother Eric (Clarke Thorell), a drifter, has plans to help Miles, by working to open a neighborhood hangout. But he's long resented the preferential treatment Miles received, and feels as though he's never been considered an equal member of the family. Nina's partner, Kit (Johanna Day), can't cope with turning 40, and resents carrying the weight of the business that Nina has had to shed to raise the baby. The elderly Korean nanny (Satya Lee) Nina hired to help her around the house has her own ideas about gender and race that aren't particularly enlightened additions to the household.
As the conflicts pile up, reaching apparent critical mass at multiple points, it becomes clear that Son is examining the infinite facets of the questions that divide people. The conscious and unconscious motives of each character are painstakingly explored and dissected, from Nina's embracing and eventual repudiation of Mrs. Chae's devotion to her heritage, to Miles's odd working relationship with black go-to-guy Reggie (Ron Cephas Jones) across the street. Just when you feel you understand the racial and social makeups of these people's souls (often very different from their outward appearances), Son turns the tables.
While much of the play is gripping and unpredictable, when Son stops looking at these age-old questions and starts asking them herself you feel her voice start to resonates with a slight hollowness that makes you wonder if someone else has started talking. The most heated confrontations in the play's final quarter - between Nina and Kit, between Nina and Miles, and between Miles and Eric - are stodgily scripted, playing about the surface that many of the play's earlier situations avoid.
Son drums up more suspicion and suspense with a subplot about a missing video camera than in all the late-show shouting matches combined. No one here is ever as interesting blaring concerns directly as they are when wrestling with keeping them silent. And it's in those moments of quiet that the play's real magic is worked.
Not just from Son and her sensitive director, Michael Greif, but also by scenic designer Mark Wendland, whose amazing set evokes both the constricting expanse of the Brooklyn brownstone and the volatile compartmentalization of Nina's overworked mind. And, of course, the cast: Carroll and Jones are especially good at keeping you guessing, revealing their true natures and goals only gradually as the play unfolds. Lee's Mrs. Chae is a rather one-note addition to this galvanic symphony, but she plays her well. Day and Thorell overshoot their attempted targets of one-dimensional indifference, instead looking and sounding uncomfortable throughout.
Oh, an award winner for TV's Grey's Anatomy and one of the leads of Stop Kiss, occupies the stunning center of the play with a colorful, casual complexity. The battles she wages, between working woman and mother, between her skin color and her upbringing, and between her desires for growth and stability, are the play's most vital, and Oh tackles them with a bedraggled, businesslike aplomb that provides a perfect dry foundation for a volatile evening.
If it all starts with that rock through the window, it doesn't end anywhere close: Sometimes, Son argues, you can't understand love until you understand hatred both without and within. It's only in the final scene that anyone seriously considers the source of the rock, and even then plenty of mystery remains. Not that it matters. It's what's rebuilt, not what's shattered, that's most important in Satellites.