Merrimack Repertory Theatre veteran Kyle Fabel directs the regional premiere of Year Zero with a quartet of actors all making their debuts on this stage. Daniel Velasco plays Vuthy, a 16-year-old first generation Cambodian American living in Long Beach, California, with his college student sister Ra (Juliette Hing-Lee) who has been left in charge of him since the recent death of their mother. While Ra is self-disciplined and has her sights set on medical school, it is an understatement to categorize Vuthy as being adrift. He rejects friendly overtures from Ra's Chinese-American boyfriend Glenn (Arthur Keng), and longs for the kind of camaraderie his sister's ex-boyfriend (and recent ex-con) Han (Michael Rosete) has with his gang homies. Vuthy is not accepted at his high school and chooses to confide in a skull that he hides in the cookie jar.
The Cambodian genocide hovers in the background as the raison d'Ítre for the play, as well as the back story of this family. Apparently their mother never told them her personal history and, for whatever reason, neither Ra nor Vuthy asked too many questions. However, it seems troubling to them, now that it is too late, and they clamor for information from Han. As tight-lipped as she was with her own children, mom shared her stories with Han, a neighborhood boy who also escaped their native land. That was a little hard for me to swallow, and Rosete tells the stories as if learned by rote. He is much more effective when he's displaying his bad boy swagger and takes Vuthy out to show him how to be a man, or when he makes moves on Ra to try to win her back.
Ra is a strong, young woman, but is overstressed by school, her concerns about her brother and trying to pack up her mother's apartment (mostly an inordinate number of symbolic figurines) so she can move in with Glenn in Oakland. Hing-Lee's performance captures her many sides and her ambivalence vis-a-vis the past and present boyfriends. She and Velasco share a chemistry that lends authenticity to their sibling relationship, and she and Rosete connect nicely. There is tension built into the relationship between Ra and Glenn, but no romantic spark and little evidence that there is any reason for them to be together other than her choosing a good boy to replace the bad.
Outside of the stated theme of Cambodian Americans trying to make their way in America, the story could be applied to any nascent ethnic group and there's not much else new here. Year Zero over promises and underperforms as Golamco's script gets bogged down in generic lists of potential challenges and stereotypical characteristics. For example, Vuthy is a nerd who plays Dungeons and Dragons and gets beaten up by bullies who take away his lunch. Han is the soft-hearted bad guy who makes nice to Ra and plays big brother, but he is a terrible role model who plans to carry out a gang killing because you do what you gotta do. Shades of West Side Story with less compelling characters and minus the music and dance.
The play doesn't work for me, perhaps because my expectation was that it would illuminate the specific experiences of Cambodian Americans, to differentiate them from other ethnic groups who have preceded them as the new guys on the block. However, that takes nothing away from the importance of MRT choosing this production in its effort to be more inclusive of a community that makes up approximately thirteen percent of Lowell's population. It is noteworthy that a series of "Audience Engagement Activities" are scheduled to take place throughout the run, including post-show discussions (September 18 and 25, October 3) and a performance by the Angkor Dance Troupe (September 28).
Year Zero performances through October 5, 2014, at Merrimack Repertory Theatre, 50 East Merrimack Street, Lowell, MA; Box Office 978-654-4678 or www.mrt.org.
Written by Michael Golamco, Directed by Kyle Fabel; Scenic Designer, Randall Parsons; Costume Designer, Deborah Newhall; Lighting Designer, Brian J. Lilienthal; Sound Designer/Composer, David Remedios; Stage Manager, Casey Leigh Hagwood; Fight Choreography, Ted Hewlett
Cast (in order of appearance): Daniel Velasco, Vuthy; Juliette Hing-Lee, Ra; Michael Rosete, Han; Arthur Keng, Glenn