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Catch as Catch Can

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - November 9, 2022

Cindy Cheung, Jon Norman Schneider,
and Rob Yang

Photo by Joan Marcus
Catch as Catch Can. Meaning, take happiness where you find it? Seek, and seize on, fulfilling human relationships? Your guess is as good as mine, and Mia Chung's new play, at Playwrights Horizons, emerges as more of a gimmicky acting exercise than a coherent throughline. Its three actors–Cindy Cheung, Jon Norman Schneider, and Ron Yang–play six roles of varying ages and genders with, most notably, Schneider and Yang portraying both sixty-something mothers and their errant sons. Chung wants to say something about generational conflicts and the traits we inherit and/or reject from our forebears. What that something is, don't ask me.

We're in what the program describes as "working class New England," though aside from the occasional mention of Waltham or Cranston, little in Chung's writing feels geographically specific. The chat, the never-ending chat about family issues and outside acquaintances we never meet and whose relevance we never discern, does feel authentically working class. It's sputtered out by two longtime-friend families, and it's all conveyed on Matt Saunders' unremarkable set, an upstage bare-bones kitchen and a downstage living room with terrible floral wallpaper, framed by a spinet and an easy chair.

In that kitchen we first meet Theresa Phelan (Yang) and Roberta Lavecchia (Schneider), jabbering biddies dishing gossip about the royal family, their own families, astrology, and foreigners' sexual abilities. Yang and Schneider, directed by Daniel Aukin to overemphasize these ladies' Edith Bunker verbal tics and aren't-they-adorable misconceptions and prejudices, are amusing at first. It gets tired fast. Needless details pile up: Who's Harris, who's mentioned four times and then forgotten? Or Myra? Or Blake? No matter, let's move on to...

Tim (Yang), Theresa's successful son, who's lied to his mom that he's engaged to a Korean woman, for reasons I never did fathom. He really lusts after Daniela (Cheung), Roberta's daughter, and one of the better scenes happens when Tim clumsily attempts to seduce her. His best bud is her brother Robbie (Schneider), who keeps visiting his needy ex-wife in Korea and who hasn't a lot of personality, or verbal acumen. A typical Robbie line of dialogue: "Or the right (scoff). I mean, like, what's he (exasperated noises). Cuz who's gonna, like, without any kinda." Persuasive best-bud chat, maybe. But why, except maybe to establish blue-collar New England atmosphere, do we need to hear it?

There's also Lon (Cheung), Robbie and Daniela's genial dad. (He's freeze-framed in semi-darkness in that downstage easy chair throughout the first Theresa-Roberta scene; I literally thought Cheung was a mannequin.) He doesn't affect the narrative much, which is mostly about Tim's declining fortunes and sanity, Daniela's career and love life, and Robbie's inarticulate attempts to help both families. Lots of beer, lots of small talk, and a long Christmas scene, with Roberta flustering over the menu and Cheung having to play both Lon and Daniela at the same time, which becomes as confusing for us as it probably is for her. Later in the scene, all six characters are onstage; try and keep track of that. If there's a way to clarify who's who, Aukin hasn't come up with it.

It's all so perplexing. Something goes wrong in Tim's head, it's not clear what, and in the next scene Cheung and Yang are playing Lon/Daniela and Tim/Theresa, though only Lon and Theresa are talking. So many random details are thrown out about people we don't know at all, and half the time we're going, "Wait, which one is s/he playing now?" Chung surely means to give the actors a chance to assert their versatility, but couldn't Enver Chakartash have come up with a couple more costumes to help us differentiate?

A suicidal Tim ends up in a hospital, where, quoting from a footnote in Chung's script, "Actor T/T speaks Theresa's dialogue and performs Tim's actions–likewise with Actor R/R (Roberta's dialogue/Robbie's actions) and Actor L/D (Lon's dialogue/Daniela's actions)." How on earth are we supposed to keep that straight? References to unkept appointments, a long Daniela monologue in which she's talking to a variety of different people but we don't know who they are, long pauses in a scene in which Tim and Robbie (who's suddenly an expectant father; when did that happen, and who's the mom?) can't think of what to say to each other–why is any of this here?

Aside from Schneider and Yang overdoing Theresa and Roberta, the actors do OK, and Cheung really does make a complete person out of Daniela, probably more than what's there on paper. That they're Asian Americans playing Italian and Irish clans, in the current casting environment, feels neither here nor there. Chung's program note reveals a sincere desire to explore family and heredity and how they build a self: As she puts it, "What is inherent of our inheritance?" A vital, worth-asking question; unfortunately, viewing Catch as Catch Can, trying to keep up with who's playing whom at this particular moment and where we are and why, you won't find the answer here.

Catch as Catch Can
Through November 20, 2022
Playwrights Horizons
Peter Jay Sharp Theater, 416 West 42nd Street, New York NY
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