It's not exactly news that sometimes failure is not an option. Unfortunately, when the rules of military campaigns and big business are applied to families, failure can be indistinguishable from success - and both can be equally debilitating. So it's little surprise that the two young men at the center of Julia Cho's heartfelt but clear-eyed new play Durango, which just opened at The Public Theater, are alternately on the fast track and in traction.
Their father, you see, is... Well, wait. The blame doesn't rest entirely on him. He's a big part of it, to be sure, pushing one son into a swimming scholarship and the other into a career as a doctor, regardless of whether either wants to be shoved in those directions - what if one son really wants to be an artist, and the other a musician? Cho wants it known that the one exerting that kind of force on others can be under the control of potent forces himself.
The American Dream, for example, is as unavoidable as it often seems unattainable. Prejudice is a powerful one, especially if you're not white. If you happen to have connections nonetheless, is using them a way to fairly level the playing field, or might that cause additional, unforeseen problems? Boo-Seng Lee (James Saito) has a lot to think about, and now that he's lost his job of 20 years, he's got no end of time to do so. And with both his sons, Isaac (James Yaegashi) and Jimmy (Jon Norman Schneider), about to head off to school, he's running out of opportunities to deal with them head-on.
So what better way than a vacation in which they can all be frankly and openly not discussed? When the three embark on a road trip from their Arizona home to historic Durango, Colorado, to ride on a steam-powered train and connect with United States history, each has plenty not to say about his own contribution to his family's future: Boo-Seng hasn't told his sons about being fired, Isaac hasn't divulged many details of his med-school interview in Hawaii, and Jimmy is being mighty evasive about how things are going on the swim team. But as their trip becomes longer and more fraught, they run out of time, energy, and excuses to continue lying to each other about everything.
That the problems they're facing are mostly of the everyday, pedestrian variety strangely adds to the play's gripping allure. All three men, operating under different kinds of expectations (familial, sexual, social, you name it) brought about because of their Korean heritage, are convinced that their troubles are unique, but that all three are obsessed with many similar concerns unites them more than they're capable of realizing. And the production surrounding them, which has been smoothly directed by Chay Yew and features a Dan Ostling present-mugs-past scenic design of expansive beauty, makes this fiery where other plays would settle for watery.
Yaegashi's startlingly firm performance anchors the show - you see in him just how the resentment of living years in his younger brother's shadow has hollowed out his soul and made his adolescent rebellious streak self-immolating. Saito moves through the role of Boo-Seng as though he has the world on his shoulders; in a sense he does, and the effects of gravity compellingly crush him more as the play unfolds. Schneider strains in playing Jimmy's youthfulness, and thus never really convinces as the high schooler he's supposed to be, though his basic attitude is right for a boy uncertain of how to become the man he, and not his father, wants. Ross Bickell and Jay Sullivan are fine as a series of supporting characters representing guideposts along the parallel trips to Durango and understanding.
There are times Cho juggles too much: Jimmy's fascination with the perfection of comic-book characters (and their models) suggests personal appearance issues that are never really followed through. And several monologues that usher the boys' deceased mother into the action don't enhance our perception of how her values still affect their lives as much as they pad out the play. It doesn't need it - Durango is so sleek and tight that even the five or so minutes added by these scenes feel like unnecessary fat.
Cho might have feared that, without these more overt scenes, her points about how American culture's influence on and possible subversion of Asian identity could be lost along the way. She needn't have worried. By looking at the Lee family's troubles through an unflinching, unsympathetic lens, Cho focuses even more intensely and satisfyingly on what defines meaning and emotional survival in our own lives. The truth hurts, the play argues, whether you're finding it or speaking it. But if either in some way isolates us, the pain from holding back the truth might be more destructive still.