BWW Reviews: Crazy, Maddening, and Funny...That's ENJOY at Coho Productions
Sometimes a play changes course after intermission. Sometimes that's a bad thing: a promising set of characters take a wrong turn into fantasy (as in The Mountaintop), or the plot just disappears (as in the classic musical flop Big Deal). But sometimes a play that isn't working takes a positive step in its second half, and that's the case with Enjoy, the new play at Coho Productions.
Enjoy is a difficult play to explain, but I'll try. We meet a group of twenty- and thirty-somethings who work at a comic book shop (which also sells food, snacks, showers, and temporary beds) in a subway station in a crowded part of Tokyo. In the first part of the play, the characters take turns telling each other stories, or trying to; the jangled dialogue meanders all over the place, sentences are rarely completed, and stories don't seem to have points or endings. The actors sometimes refer to their characters in the third person and talk to the audience, and they switch roles in the middle of the anecdotes. Nothing actually happens; we hear the older men complain about their younger compatriots, and then we hear the younger ones gripe about the older ones. What the characters all have in common is that they're working part-time jobs for low wages, even though most have college degrees, and even the thirty-somethings live with their parents.
However, after intermission, we're presented with an actual dramatic situation. A young woman is telling her best friend why she broke up with her boyfriend. He is one of the older workers at the comic book shop, and he came home after running into a childhood friend at the shop. The childhood friend was well-dressed and had the appearance of a "salaryman" (Japanese slang for a businessman), while the woman's boyfriend was ashamed and depressed by his low station in life. The young woman is upset by his self-pity and dumps him then and there. This scene is intriguingly written, with the three actors (two men and a woman) taking turns playing the roles, but it holds our interest because it's about something, while the first part of the play was just aimless dialogue.
The last section of the play is also quite well-written; two of the twenty-something boys are out on dates, one with a longtime girlfriend, the other with a new date, who also works at the shop. They speak about new love and old love, and look at each other's relationships with curiosity and interest. Even here, the two actresses trade parts, but these trades are never jarring; they're just a way of passing the story along.
I can't remember ever being so torn about a play. Enjoy is two completely different pieces. The first half is almost impossible to sit through, despite the efforts of its talented cast; the relentless mumbling and stammering, the incomplete sentences, the young men's aimlessness...it became numbing, and I was dreading coming back for the second half. The actors do what they can, and there are some funny moments early on, but as the act drags on, it's hard to figure out what the play is about or why we're watching it. (Occasionally the actors break into tai chi-style movements, which don't make any sense either.) But the dramatic fire and romantic plotting of the second half are worth staying for. Perhaps the author felt more comfortable writing about women? Only one woman appears in the first half, and she doesn't have much to say. It's also hard to know who to blame for the quasi-hip dialogue, playwright Toshiki Okada or translator Aya Ogawa.
As I said, the cast is uniformly excellent, but that brings me to another question, and this one I don't know how to answer. The play is set in Tokyo, and the characters all have Japanese names, but eight of the nine performers are Caucasian (the ninth is Korean American), and I'm not sure whether that's a good thing. Many years ago, it was common for white actors to play roles of all ethnicities, using makeup to transform themselves; this would be offensive to modern eyes. More recently, we've embraced multiracial casting, with actors of all races playing characters of all races. Here, the Caucasian actors don't make any attempt to look or sound Japanese, thank heaven, and perhaps we've moved into a post-racial world where this is an acceptable way to put on a play. But to my middle-aged white self...it still felt weird.
You might disagree with me on this point. You might also disagree with me about the first half of Enjoy, and more power to you if you do. But if you decide to go see the show...it might be better to show up at intermission.