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Chinese Friends

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Jon Robin Baitz does not list any books among his writing credits in his Playbill bio for Chinese Friends, which just opened at Playwrights Horizons. Perhaps, with this particular work, Baitz simply chose the wrong medium of expression? While it's entirely possible that Chinese Friends could make a terrific novel, it makes a pretty terrible play.

There's a reason futuristic political thrillers aren't often written for the stage. There's so much a playwright must do, especially if he wants to extrapolate from current events to build his story. There are decades of political successes and failures to establish, technological concerns to address, parallels to be drawn to the modern day so the play seems relevant, and, above all, a story to be kept interesting and theatrical throughout.

That's where Baitz runs into serious trouble. The play, set in 2030, is ostensibly about a group of rebellious young adults (Tyler Francavilla, Will McCormack, and Bess Wohl, in more or less interchangeable roles) from a "temporary autonomous zone" (read commune), who come to confront Arthur Brice (Peter Strauss), a former liberal political leader now living in semi-exile on an island in New England, about his relationship to the commune leader, his former political ally, and the contents of an illicit recording Brice apparently made years earlier.

Over the course of one night, truths, lies, and blows are exchanged as the four argue about the climactic social upheaval that has torn the country apart, and the renaissance they all hope to bring about. Of course, Baitz's real subject is how rifts in political parties can prevent like-minded people from uniting against a common enemy, but neither that nor the enemy's real name (George W. Bush) is ever explicitly stated.

It's about the only thing that's not, as Baitz devotes a considerable portion of both acts to lengthy (and excruciating) exposition-filled speeches that don't so much establish the action as they beat it (and the audience) into the ground. From the opening scene, in which Brice accosts his visitors at gunpoint, not a word goes unsaid, not a trace of honesty is to be found, and hardly a stitch of sense is made.

Baitz's play, woozily directed by Robert Egan at a near-glacial pace, is by turns boring, unbelievable, and unintentionally hilarious; "Nihilism is very hard work" is a line representing what passes for wit here, while insight is in still shorter supply ("Only the weak believe their god is the only god"). Given the dialogue, it's not surprising that none of the acting is for a moment convincing, but the performers are able to get through the play with straight faces, which alone should qualify them for top honors in the 2005 awards season. Santo Loquasto's set, which perfectly blends futuristic refuge with rustic convenience, Donald Holder's lights, and Laura Bauer's costumes all have a sense of class lacking elsewhere in the play.

Despite the other problems, there is a potentially interesting story at work here. It's buried beneath a ton of strained symbolism (the title derives from a game, popularly known as Othello or Reversi, that mirrors the characters' constantly shifting positions of power), dead stage time (the characters often sit around listening to plot-intensive recordings), and dialogue that, were it not for Prymate, would qualify Chinese Friends as the most ridiculous play yet in 2004. (Okay, one more example: "Why did you take such steps to remain invisible?")

While the writing probably wouldn't seem much better if Chinese Friends were a novel rather than a play, there would some distinct advantages to that form instead of this one: Easily negotiable flashbacks would help clarify the story and the characters and make the exposition easier to bear; greater detail could be applied to the world that created these angry, blood-thirsty characters; the action-killing recordings would read much better than they play; and the multiple plot twists in the play's last ten minutes wouldn't seem so drenched in desperation.

At that point, as throughout the rest of the play, perhaps Baitz was just trying too hard? There's so much strain evident in every moment that it's difficult to latch onto the occasional line or action that really does suggest there's an engrossing story to be found here. As it currently stands, Chinese Friends is a mess that desperately needs to be cleaned up, either onstage or in paperback.


Playwrights Horizons
Chinese Friends
Through June 13
Running Time: 2 hours, with one 15-minute intermission
Playwrights Horizons' Mainstage Theater, 416 West 42nd Street
Schedule and Tickets: 212.279.4200

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