Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: St. Louis

White to Gray
Mustard Seed Theatre

Also see Richard's review of God of Carnage


Fox Smith and Ben Nordstrom
It's a very good thing to be director Deanna Jent. She almost makes me wish I were a highly respected producer/director, myself ...

Not only has she just finished wrangling up a complete reconstruction of 2013s sell-out holiday show, All Is Calm, with its huge "in-demand" cast; she can also use her excellent local reputation to shoe-horn another top-flight group of actors into a fresh-out-of-the-box new, world premiere show—despite the fact that the script still needs some breaking in.

It's a very lucky thing for playwright Rob Maesaka that Ms. Jent's Mustard Seed Theatre is now staging White to Gray. The title refers to the abrupt U.S. transformation to a military footing in World War II, when a gleaming white, 639 foot-long Pacific ocean liner must be pressed into military service as a gray troop carrier after the attack on Pearl Harbor. A torrid romance plays out right before the change-over.

But the big question is, are the director and the playwright, themselves, engaged in their own doomed (artistic) romance in the production of this show? Or can they find box-office happiness on the rough seas of what amounts to "previews"? You have my permission, here, to pause and imagine Ms. Jent (draped in furs) and Mr. Maesaka (lighting two cigarettes in his mouth at once) standing alone together in the moonlight.

And that's because the story itself seems like a huge (but welcome) throwback to the romantic films of the 1940s and 1950s, from the Golden Age of Hollywood: think of Bette Davis and Paul Henreid sailing, hopelessly in love in Now, Voyager; or Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr planning to reunite, someday, in An Affair To Remember. Here, young lovers, a Caucasian-American man and Japanese-American woman, have a very nice, fraught relationship on board the SS Lurline (a real ship of the era, whose name came from the Rhinemaidens, you idiot, and not The Simpsons).

Of course, Bette Davis had already completed her Cinderella-like transformation before she got on board in her 1942 "weeper," and Deborah Kerr had yet to make her tragic transformation in her famed 1957 love story, when she meets Cary on her celluloid ship. Here, in White to Gray, a compelling heroine experiences her own strange-but-true political transformation while on board her own version of an ocean liner.

And, let's admit, that's got to be the very best way you could possibly do it, artistically. Give a big gold star to playwright Maesaka for that achievement. Wouldn't it be perfect if all transformations took place in transit?

So let's be positive and stay with what works, first.

Ben Nordstrom is (as always) involving and boyish and charming as Peter—even though he's a dissolute, overgrown rich kid here, who's stumbled upon an old flame: Sumiko, raised in the Hawaiian Islands. Her deliciously funny, meddling mother is taking her to San Francisco after the death of her father. Fox Smith is endearing and smart and beautifully heartbroken as the daughter; and Paige Russell is quietly, relentlessly, vexingly funny—but also manages to lend deep historical focus to their plight—as her mom, Mrs. Yoshida.

Charlie Barron, an excellent regular at Mustard Seed and other fine companies, is Peter's friend and "fixer" Jimmy, a pal who can out-drink and out-think this rich kid any day of the week. And both Jimmy and Mrs. Yoshida get all the good lines, and all the wisecracks, and most of the best dramatic plot-lines, while Peter and Sumiko exist almost entirely as static, stylistic ornaments, looming silhouettes on some movie poster, over an ocean liner sailing into an uncertain future.

Then (with apologies), let's skip over the outstanding work of actors Jeff Kargus (as a starchy bartender) and Greg Lhamon, as the utterly charming and commanding ship's commodore, and the rest. Instead, let's think about our Romeo and Juliet—that pair of big hopeless silhouettes up there on the 'movie poster' that is our conception of wartime romance.

Mr. Maesaka, the playwright, might be too young to have at his fingertips his own wealth of beautifully hopeless lovers' quips ("We'll always have Paris," or "Never, at any crisis of your life, have I known you to have a handkerchief"). As a result, the litany of unworkable relationship problems raked over and over by Peter and Sumiko almost always occur in a bit of a romantic vacuum.

There's just not much "Moonlight and Magnolia" in the air—the calculated, reliably romantic scent of Scarlett O'Hara. And finally, the very last line of this play suddenly veers wildly, alarmingly off toward Brazzaville—the Moroccan desert town Claude Rains mentions as we "dolly-out" at the end of Casablanca. In my opinion, the seeds of Peter's final, personal decision are missing, and should be planted earlier and more often, to remove our current sense of shock, as we leave the theater.

The intentional theme of White to Gray may indeed be that man is always a hairsbreadth away from war-fever. But as a result, the show's fumbling, often arid love story seems like a gigantic red herring by comparison.

Still, it's sometimes very beautiful, and a sometimes beautifully anguishing new play.

However, the scenes between Peter and Jimmy are long—though Mr. Barron manages to make them more enjoyable (playing against that starchy bartender in a couple of appearances), and Mr. Nordstrom adds genuine pathos to Peter, a potentially unlikable role. But the scenes between Sumiko and her mother go on and on, despite the excellent work of both actresses. Their stretches of private dialog often seem existentially glum.

The simplest questions are: Could all the long two-hander "buddy" or mother/daughter scenes be broken up, and (please, please, please) be more focused on the romance? And if Peter really has to make decision "X" at the end, can't we be made more ready for it?

Production-wise, there certainly ought to be some deep, luxurious colored lighting, like a Technicolor movie. And who do I have to screw to get some furs and pearls for the smart-yet-smoldering Fox Smith? They would add the Hollywood glamor the romance seems to cry out for, and maybe stir up more doubt about whether or not Sumiko is some kind of Mata Hari, in the hours after Pearl Harbor.

Finally, with tongue planted only halfway in cheek, maybe this all would benefit from nostalgic-sounding mood music, which sidesteps the problem of the absence of genuine romantic dialog. How about some ship-board singers: faux hula dancers who morph into something like the USO-friendly Andrew Sisters, during the changeover of the ocean liner into a troop carrier (which might begin about 10 or 15 minutes earlier in the play)? That would add an ironic strangeness to the interrogation scenes—the singers could be upstage during that, and some of the romantic interludes. Then it all could serve as the Pacific theater's version of Cabaret, in a first-class cabin. The uncertain threat of newly concocted American interment camps already echoes that much worse reality of Europe's concentration camps.

And get me a wind machine, for God's sake. Or you'll never work in this town again!

A nice new play with a great cast and a lot of potential, through February 22, 2015, at the black box theater at the south end of the Fontbonne University campus. For more information visit www.mustardseedtheatre.com.

Cast
Mrs. Yoshida: Paige Russell
Sumiko: Fox Smith
Peter: Ben Nordstrom*
Jimmy: Charlie Barron
Commodore: Greg Lhamon
Bartender: Jeff Kargus
Waterman: Taylor Campbell
Martin: Chuck Brinkley

* Denotes member, Actors Equity Association

Designers & Crew
Director: Deanna Jent
Stage Manager: Katie Donnelly
Assistant Director: Angela Doerr
Assistant Stage Managers: Frances Garren and Joee Gardiner
Set Design: Dunsi Dai
Scene Design Assistant: Robert Ashurst
Light Design: Maureen Berry
Costume Design: Jane Sullivan
Sound Design: Zoe Sullivan
Props Master: Meg Brinkley
Light Board Operator: Katie Donnelly
Sound Board Operator and Wardrobe Assistant: Emily Klein
House Manager: Tanya Tweedy


Photo: John Lamb


-- Richard T. Green


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