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Year Zero

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Year Zero
Mason Lee and Maureen Sebastian.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

For much of the first act of Year Zero, which just opened at the McGinn-Cazale Theatre as the first installment in this yearís Second Stage Theatre Uptown series, you may wonder whether youíve unwittingly discovered the first-ever Cambodian-American sitcom. The setup is almost too precious: In gorgeous Long Beach, California, a 16-year-old boy is about to move in with his aunt when his sister leaves the house they grew up in to move to Berkeley. Then her old (Cambodian) boyfriend returns after a long absence, and her new one (Chinese) gets nervous. With her dorky little brother becoming the old boyfriendís mentee, rapping at skulls, and DMing Dungeons and Dragons over the phone, isnít this all comic gold waiting for the mining?

Not exactly. The biggest problem with the play, which has been directed by Will Frears, is that almost none of its cheeky, cutesy writing early on prepares you for the difficult but rewarding story that eventually emerges from this schematic setup. It takes so long to arrive, and the styles clash so completely at first, that even when things take a turn for the serious it takes a while to accept them as part of the same show youíve been watching. Thatís a structural flaw significant enough to sink any show, but that this one survives and thrives nonetheless is a tribute to just how smart the rest of it is.

To see this, you need only scratch a bit deeper into the details of its plot. The two siblings, Vuthy (Mason Lee) and Ra (Maureen Sebastian) are on their own because their mother recently died of cancer, the conclusion of a long life lived in America after she escaped the Khmer Rouge. She never spoke to either of them about her experiences, which has left both feeling that they never really knew her (especially Ra, who was away at school when her mother died). But she did confide in Han (Louis Ozawa Changchien), Raís much-older ex whoís recently been released from prison (and who, if he and his compatriots have their way, may be returning soon). Han becomes the link that Ra needs to both her mother and her homeland, especially since irritatingly nice new boyfriend Glenn (Peter Kim) has the nasty habit of thinking a few kind words or actions can erase a lifetime of pain.

Doesnít sound quite so TV-ready anymore, does it? Even Glenn ó who at first seems to be on hand only to provide comic relief ó comes to have a major role in the story: Heís the eternal optimist and the poster boy for successful assimilation (heís on the fast track to a medical career) of the kind that Han and Ra donít truly want. Glenn has become fully American, but Han and Raís family and upbringing leaves them Cambodian first and foremost; their inability (or unwillingness) to move away from this, even when trying to align their adult lives, making them incompatible with anyone who doesnít see the world the same way.

The more everyone comes to realize just how poorly they know themselves and the people theyíre closest to, the more Year Zero becomes a compelling meditation on the scope of meaning of identity. Everyone has his or her concept of self challenged at least once, and the play draws much of its fuel from the way each character faces their public and private selves, and the history thatís sculpted them. It plumbs the depths of one of Americaís less-represented ethnic groups in a way that explores with compassionate complexity how these peopleís violence-laden backgrounds have followed them throughout their lives, and what it means for their success (or lack thereof) in the U.S.

In other words, this is real theatre, not a boulevard comedy in want of a laugh track. Golamcoís writing in those early scenes doesnít adequately prepare you for whatís coming ó a deficiency thatís matched by too much of the production around it. Frearsís direction is largely surface-level, hitting the proper beats but not effectively controlling the waves of emotion that should be slowly eroding the charactersí souls. In accordance, the acting is often a bit iffy ó Changchien does the most consistently successful work, nicely capturing a man caught between love, law, and his culture, but Sebastian and Kim come across as very stilted, and donít share much in the way of chemistry. Lee, an NYU student making his Off-Broadway debut, makes Vuthy attractively intense, but delivers most of his lines in an angry monotone that never quite conveys a sense of innate rebellion.

What does, against all odds, is Robin Vestís set. A vision of gray and rose, itís so squeaky-clean shiny ó itís cluttered, but neatly so ó it looks like it could have been the apartment set in Friends. Except for a couple of inconclusive paintings (which could pass as ďAsian chicĒ), thereís no a hint that a Cambodian refugee ever lived there, and thatís the point: When mom escaped the killing fields, she became an American through and through, and never looked back. Why canít todayís kids do the same? Itís a gripping question, and one thatís rarely asked about the immigrant experience. Because of it, Year Zero doesnít need the help of stale comedy to make it stand out ó it does just fine once Golamco lets it stand on the courage of its own considerable convictions.


Year Zero
Through June 13
McGinn/Cazale Theatre, 2162 Broadway at West 76th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Second Stage Theatre