BWW Review: Layered stories trapped in the dense dialogue of [VEIL WIDOW CONSPIRACY] at Next Door @ NYTW
Presented by NAATCO (National Asian American Theatre Company), the parentheses of the title [Veil Widow Conspiracy] hint at this play's structure. The events to be unveiled center around a 1922 political murder mystery which occurred in Xinjiang, China. It is also about a 2010 movie filmed on location about that mystery. Finally, two young Asians in a dystopian Brooklyn in 2035 are discussing the film. The story lines are related and tucked inside each other but really serve to comment on philosophies and moralities.
In conversation, Mei and Xião agree that it's not enough to be family anymore to get in China. Connections are needed. Apparently they reside in Brooklyn and the situation in the year 2035 is not good. Xião (Aaron Yoo) brings up the autonomous region of Xinjiang and a movie. The film cannot be seen in this presumably dystopian world so he will be telling her the story. The metaphorically dense dialogue emerges early on when Mei (Karoline Xu) says, "We're basically swimming in doubt and breathing bad faith - who can bear deliberate fancy?"
Quickly the time shifts to 1922 and we hear about a General's daughter whose face was disfigured in a shooting accident. Her husband was killed and now she is going to remarry. A line of pompously important suitors attempt to woo her. She now wears a veil since her appearance is a highly guarded secret, likely a hideous one. The plot thickens as the suitors bad mouth each other and she toys with them about finding and killing her husband's murderer.
This extensive period soap opera portion is leaden with little tension created to spark the attempt at aristocratic political intrigue. The 1922 Heiress (Kimiye Corwin) says to the Commander, "How can I, when the thought of your touch makes me gag?" It's hard to get on board when the words sound silly and overwrought but are not delivered that way.
Shifting again, the play moves to the filming of the 2010 movie. More or less there are three angles here: recreation of movie scenes, interviews with the filmmakers and heated discussions with Chinese censors who confiscate the half-finished project. "A western film attacking Chinese values will not be approved." The producer responds, "Of course not. Tell me, is this like pubic hair?" A conversation ensues about the appropriateness of male and female nudity.
Lines emerge about false truths which perk up the ears. "The hypocrisy of a truth despite it being universally known. That is exactly what brought down the Catholic Church. And the Berlin Wall." But then the dialogue circles back to "pubic hair is another example, absent across centuries to even now - depending on where - but still, often, sometimes - asserting the complete non-existence of a biological commonplace." There are some interesting ideas and thoughts buried deep within this play. The dialogue is often so intellectually unnatural that it was hard to stay focused to find those nuggets.
The mishmash of interlocking stories continue from 1922 events to the movie shoot to the cast speaking directly to the audience. An actor confesses "I felt so naïve, in my privilege" before quickly returning to the main drama. The story will finally conclude before returning to Brooklyn in 2035 so the Mei and Xião can disagree about the film. She concludes: "that is an insidious amount of total bullshit." A dangerous line to throw out there at the end of an overwritten play. [Veil Widow Conspiracy] needs copious editing and perhaps complete elimination of the Brooklyn bookends which did not seem to add anything meaningful.
Edward Chin-Lyn (as Commander and Film Director) and James Seol (as Prince and Delegate) created confident characterizations for both of their roles. Yu-Hsuan Chen's set design was ingeniously simple and very effective in clearly delineating the oft-changing locales. Gordon Dahlquist's play, however, is long-winded and the director (Aneesha Kudtarkar) was not able to help us understand why this particular story was being told.