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Regretfully, So the Birds Are

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - April 11, 2023

Kristine Nielsen and Sasha Diamond
Photo by Chelcie Parry
The last time Playwrights Horizons aimed to just make us laugh and not think too hard was The Thanksgiving Play. That turned out well. Playwrights is back in comedic mode with Regretfully, So the Birds Are by Julia Izumi, described as a "tragicomedy" but leaning more heavily on the second half of that. Odd title, isn't it? It's a line late in the play and it makes minimal sense even in context. But Regretfully, So the Birds Are is quite the apt moniker for this wackadoodle work. It's funny, it's ambiguous, and it trails off to nowhere.

At its heart, it's a suburban sitcom: New Jersey, where we're focused on the three young-adult adopted Asian kids of the white-bread Mr. and Mrs. Whistler. Illy (Sasha Diamond) is a gifted, successful musician and a little self-conscious of how that turns her into an Asian stereotype. Mora (Shannon Tyo) keeps describing herself as a "human disaster," and she's sort of right: a self-absorbed misfit who can't hold onto a job or a partner, but a diligent caretaker of a family that needs it. And Neel (Sky Smith) is a good-natured idiot who hasn't fully formed his identity and isn't in any hurry to. I'll avoid revealing a whopper of a spoiler about these sibs, one that drew laughs and gasps and triggers much of the subsequent action.

Cam (Gibson Frazier), their father, is deceased, a former incompetent Asian history professor who nevertheless is still around in the form of a snowman in the yard who divulges family history to us and acts as a sounding board for his ever-inquisitive, never-satisfied children. And Elinore (Kristine Nielsen) is a piece of work, a loving but deranged mom now in prison for murder–divulging more about that would also be a spoiler. We already knew that Kristine Nielsen can wring a laugh out of anything; here she actually has some good material to wring laughs out of. Only sometimes we're laughing too hard to hear what she's saying.

To call this play undisciplined would be an understatement. There are so many strands, linking up in strange gossamer ways but careening haphazardly from theme to theme: identity; environmentalism; violence, provoked and un-; commercialization of the free open air; over-wokeism–t's all here and then some. Illy, already well off from the symphony orchestras she plays in and the fellowships she's received, has gone the way of several billionaires and purchased a piece of sky. (Is this a thing, or an invention of Izumi's?) The parents have concealed each child's native origin from them, hoping it will encourage them to see one another as equals, and the children have resolved to dig out their identities when their adoption information becomes fully available. Mora, given a hint from Elinore, sets off for Cambodia, laying over in Guangzhou, where she meets a woman (Pearl Sun) who claims to be her birth mother. Neel heads to Nebraska, for reasons too silly to repeat. Illy stays home, to plan her treehouse and gaze at her corner of the sky.

Gibson Frazier
Photo by Chelcie Parry
Meanwhile, oh yes, the birds. They're crashing into things. They may be ganging up on humanity, a la Hitchcock. And they talk, in a staccato pidgin (pigeon?) English. (I assume You-Shin Chen, who did the set, designed the cute bird puppets. The rest of her set is utilitarian, save for one intriguing detail: an illuminated family portrait above the sofa that is of some other family and is partially obscured by the back of somebody's head in the foreground.) They hold bird council meetings where they discuss their impending doom, honor dead birds by name ("Bird... Bird...") and sing karaoke. Did I say this was an undisciplined play?

Real tragedy occurs, more death, but the emphasis is on the funny. Do the actors make the most of it? Not entirely. They're poised, Smith is particularly goofily charming as the slowly evolving Neel, and Nielsen can do no wrong. But they shout a lot, frequently in indecipherable counterpoint, and their comic timing is nil. I blame director Jenny Koons, who seems to have encouraged everyone to yell and barrel their way through. Gibson does manage some easy laid-back humor as the gentle Cam, but it's an interpretation at odds with the material: We have to keep reminding ourselves that Cam's a jerk.

There's a final identity surprise, one the author keeps cleverly up her sleeve, and a few closing moments so ambiguous I won't even try to analyze them. Izumi crashes entertainingly from point to point, dishing up non sequiturs all the more endearing for their lack of context, and setting up several running gags that reverberate exponentially with each repetition.

A theatregoing friend said the show reminded him of the work of Christopher Durang; there are similarities, but Durang dwells more firmly in the land of the well-made play. Izumi surely doesn't write neatly (except her program note, which is splendid), and for all the mishigas her characters express about identity, I didn't detect any large resonant statements about it. But let's cut Regretfully, So the Birds Are some slack and thank Playwrights Horizons for it. It's funny. It introduces an original, promising new voice. And it isn't The Trees.

Regretfully, So the Birds Are
Through April 30, 2023
Playwrights Horizons
Peter Jay Sharp Theater, 416 West 42nd Street, New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: