BWW Review: West of Lenin's AMERICAN HWANGAP Lacks Connection

BWW Review: West of Lenin's AMERICAN HWANGAP Lacks Connection
American Hwangap at West of Lenin.
Stephen Sumida (Min Suk Chun) and
Moses Yim (David Chun).
Photo credit: Alabastro Photography.

Lloyd Sun's play, "American Hwangap", currently playing at West of Lenin in association with SIS Productions, by its very nature should be about connection and reconnection. Unfortunately, the play itself lacks the depth needed to form those connections and the pacing of the production doesn't help.

For those unfamiliar, a "hwangap" is a traditional way of celebrating one's 60th birthday in East Asia. The number 60 means accomplishing one big 60-year cycle and starting another one in one's life following the traditional 60-year calendar cycle of the lunar calendar. This particular hwangap involves Min Suk Chun (Stephen Sumida) who some 15 years earlier left his wife Mary (Kathy Hsieh) and their three kids David, Esther, and Ralph (Moses Kristjanson Yim, Mara E. Palma, and Michael Cercado) in America to return to his native Korea. Now he's come back and not everyone is happy about the return.

At least I think they're not happy. I wasn't really certain what people were feeling and that was a major issue I had. Let's start from the top. The characters are so broadly drawn that you never really get any indication of their intentions. Why are they doing the things they are doing or acting the way they are? We're never told why the father left. We're given a vague indication of why he came back. And we're never really told how it affected the family other than their circumstances. For a family drama, this lacks drama. Furthermore, many of these surface characters are just confusing. The father has abandoned his family yet comes jauntily back home with little remorse. And then there's the younger son Ralph. A 29-year-old nanotech engineer who had a nervous breakdown so now is on medication and lives in his Mother's basement. That's all fine but when someone has a nervous breakdown do they revert to acting and speaking like a 10-year-old because that's how Ralph is written? I could be wrong but I don't think so. For the first half of the play I couldn't understand why this adult was playing this child because it took them that long to let us in on that fact.

The pace of the play, as directed by AJ Epstein doesn't help. It's not that things don't move along but with the myriad unearned pauses, the actors don't feel to be listening to each other just waiting for their next queue line and that will kill any connection on stage faster than any script can. This is not to say the performances are bad. There are some fine moments especially from the kids. Yim plays the closed off, angry son well but unfortunately that's all the script gave him to work with. Cercado handles his character just fine and from how the dialog portrays him, seemingly how the author wanted. It's not his fault that was confusing. Palma manages her character well even though she's given the least to work with from the script character-wise. But everyone seems to be in their own show just waiting for the others to stop talking so they can.

All told this confusing and puddle deep script with an ending, I might add, that just happens with no sense or resolution, just kind of lay there wanting us to like it without giving us a reason why or a way in. And so, with my three-letter rating system, I give West of Lenin's "American Hwangap" a tedious MEH-. It's fine for a show to tell us the "what" of the story, but if you want the audience to engage we're going to need the "why" as well.

"American Hwangap" performs at West of Lenin through February 25th. For tickets or information visit them online at

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From This Author Jay Irwin