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Good Enemy

Theatre Review by James Wilson - November 6, 2022

Francis Jue and Geena Quintos
Photo by Joan Marcus
Good Enemy, Audible Theater's new production at the Minetta Lane Theatre, is one-part political thriller, one-part father-daughter reconciliation drama, and one-part sentimental road-trip comedy. The elements do not completely cohere, and some of the play's effect is diluted in its attempt to give each segment equal weight, but the playwright, Yilong Liu, has a unique voice and is an artist worth following.

The character linchpin of the dramaturgical triptych is Howard (Francis Jue, who is, as always, excellent). In the beginning of the play, Howard and his daughter's ex-boyfriend, Dave (Alec Silver), embark on a car trip from California to New York City. Dave intends to make a buddy movie and hopes to get some deep insight into the experiences of a Chinese national who had escaped to the United States in the tumultuous period following the Cultural Revolution in China. Except under duress, Howard, who is not as wimpish as he first appears, is reticent to share his personal ordeals.

In Brooklyn, Howard surprises his college-aged daughter Momo (Geena Quintos), who is, to put it mildly, not overjoyed to see him. Because of Howard's unwillingness to open up to her, she has stopped trying to communicate with him. After the death of her mother, her father seems to have become more and more closed off. She tells him, "You only want to talk about the weather and food. The weather doesn't change in Southern California, and the only food you eat is Chinese." The fact that she is living with someone Howard and Momo refer to as White Boyfriend (Ryan Spahn) adds to the filial tension.

The cause of Howard's diffidence is gradually revealed in several backstory scenes from China in the early 1980s. Hao (Tim Liu), as he was previously known, works for a government operation intended to expose the supposed immoral and West-influenced activities of young Chinese dissidents. While infiltrating a nightclub, a veritable den of dancing, drinking, and capitalist-sympathizing revelers, Hao meets the lovely Jiahua (Jeena Yi).

The free-spirited Jiahua is like no one Hao has ever met before, and after an encounter by the river (nicely realized in Junghyun Georgia Lee's deceptively simple and nimble scenic design), the two develop an intimate relationship. Hao's immediate supervisor, the lascivious Xiong (Ron Domingo), threatens to tear the two apart and imprison Jiahua. (Reza Behjat's lighting, Mel Ng's costumes, and Mikhail Fiksel's sound design help to distinguish the specifics of the shifting time and place.)

The flashbacks, which should give the scenes set in the present more poignance, tend to rely on hoary melodramatic devices. Character secrets are divulged at a fairly predictable rate, for instance, and mechanistic intrigue is manufactured through a dramatically conventional journal. Additionally, the actors, under Chay Yew's direction, tend to overplay their characters almost to the point of making them caricatures.

Still, Liu applies a gentle touch in moments throughout the play, especially when he pairs the fish-out-of-water Howard with members of the younger generation. There is a very funny scene between Spahn and Jue in which their characters communicate using Google translator. There is also nice rapport between the road trippers. As the benevolent stoner, Silver conveys Dave's commitment to young and under-resourced Asian American pot smokers as well as an obligation to documenting the lives of Chinese immigrants. And whatever flaws there are along the way to the conclusion, the final scene between father and daughter is quite movingly played by Jue and Quintos.

Good Enemy is an ambitious play, and Liu touches on under-explored topics related to Chinese emigration in the last several decades. Regrettably, the playwright skirts around topics such as homosexuality, familial betrayal, and anti-intellectualism during and immediately following the Cultural Revolution. Hopefully, in future works he might take a bolder stand and address these historically sensitive topics more forthrightly.

Good Enemy
Through November 27, 2022
Audible Theater
Minetta Lane Theatre, 18 Minetta Lane, New York, NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: