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Review: THE BROTHERS PARANORMAL at East West Players

Review: THE BROTHERS PARANORMAL at East West Players

East West Players tops off a mini season of scares

The calendar - and the world of retail - may indicate that we're past Thanksgiving and charging headlong into the Yuletide, but our mini season of spookiness appears not quite ready to give up the ghost between the eeks and jumps of 2:22 A GHOST STORY concluding its run this weekend at the Ahmanson Theatre and the L.A. premiere of THE BROTHERS PARANORMAL at East West Players. Forget the mistletoe and the holiday cheer. It's difficult to make merry when you're seeing dead people and you don't want to.

As my colleague has already weighed in on 2:22, I'll wrestle with the frights of PARANORMAL, to my mind the more interesting play as well as the more chilling experience. Prince Gomolvilas's tale of a pair of aspiring sibling ghostbusters is actually a shrewd rumination on cultural identity and the processing of grief that also happens to contain - in director Jeff Liu's solid production - some first-rate scares. The story and production must serve each other, of course, but a goosebump-filled round of applause to scenic designer John Iacovelli, lighting designer Brian Gale, sound designer Da Xu and especially illusionist Ian O'Conner for so strategically turning the David Henry Hwang Theatre into a house of horrors for the two hour duration of Gomolvilas's play. It spoils little to reveal that there is a ghost in THE BROTHERS PARANORMAL and, thanks to the aforementioned technical team, this phantom has quite a playground in which to practice its poltergeist-ing.

The title brothers are a rather unconventional pairing. Fast-talking Max (played by David Huynh) first presents as a snake-oil salesman, the kind of guy who rattles on empathetically (and perhaps not so honestly) about ghostly encounters from his own past to a would-be client and then smoothly pulls out the credit card reader to seal the deal. His older brother, Visarut (Roy Vongtama), doesn't always approve of his kid bro's techniques, but Visarut is the one who has dealt more closely with after-life encounters; he's a believer. So he's content to let Max handle most of the live client interaction.

The brothers' business isn't exactly thriving. Max has returned to the family home somewhere in the Midwest to take care of both his alcoholic brother and their sick mother, Tasanee (Emily Kuroda). Business is slow, expenses are plentiful and money is tight. To Max, any new client is a lifeline ripe for bilking.

His current target is a middle-aged African American husband and wife, Felix (Jasper Howard) and Delia (Tamika Simpkins). Since moving into their home after being forced to leave their home following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, Delia has been experiencing paranormal activity in her apartment including glimpses of a young Asian woman. Although Felix has not been experiencing any of this, he agrees to hire Max and Visarut, at no small expense, with the expectation that they will either find and get rid of the ghost or prove it doesn't exist and thereby restore his wife's peace of mind. It's specifically because the ghost is Asian that Max and Visarut are enlisted. "This is our niche," Max assures Felix. "Nobody else in the Midwest does what we do."

Although their backgrounds are different, Delia and Felix and the ghost-busting brothers share feelings of displacement. Tasanee and Visarut both immigrated from Thailand when mom was in her 30s and Visarut was 13. U.S.-born Max will learn the consequences of experiencing life as a stranger in a strange land, both in terms of his own family and how feelings of estrangement can blend into the afterlife. As watchers of ghost tales know, in stories of this nature spirits often make their presence known because they have unresolved business and can't move on to the next place until someone in the community of the living figures out the problem and solves it. There is a solution to the haunting of Delia and the Brothers Paranormal, Felix and Delia can figure it out.

When we are not being creeped out by expertly-staged ghostly encounters coming at us from every corner of the stage, Gomolvilas and Liu treat us to interactions between characters who are well-drawn and believable. The warmth shared between Simpkins's Delia and Howard's Felix is as touching as it is palpable. Contrast this devotion with the uneasy family dynamics of Max and Visarut who are working through some baggage. When he is tete-a-tete with the brother he is still trying to understand, Huynh's slickness falls away and he presents in Max a young man trying to put his family back together. Vongtama, an Ichabod Crane-like foil to Huynh, si quietly affecting as the broken Visarut. And appearing in her 46th performance for East West Players, Emily Kuroda deftly lands every laugh and threatens to make off with every scene in which she appears.

THE BROTHERS PARANORMAL concludes with a two-character scene that feels too pat and therefore a bit of a clunker. Up until then, Gomolvilas has created a play that is a rare blend of frights and smarts. Leave it to the ghosts to make you think about problems plaguing the living.

THE BROTHERS PARANORMAL continues through December 11.

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