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Cold Fusion 

A tale of art swingers and swindles

Thursday, Jan 13 2005
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Photo by Ed Krieger

The Laguna Playhouse’s stage for 36 Views is a big thrust of wooden boards flanked by six simple chairs. In some ways the spare set complements playwright Naomi Iizuka’s subject — Asian art — but in other ways, it doesn’t. Scenic designer Daniel Ostling’s platform suggests the East’s austere aesthetic code, but Iizuka’s characters and dialogue are baroquely Western. Theirs is an America of wordy foreplay and blurry morals, a fussy world where women toss drinks in the faces of cads and ideals are distorted by fixers and middlemen. Sometimes this East-West fusion of visuals and vocabulary creates a tension that makes the play spin off in pleasantly unpredictable directions, but more often than not what lies down the road is visible for miles.

Darius Wheeler (Stephen Caffrey) is a dealer of Asian antiquities with a soft spot for danger and bluster. We know this because he tells us so at the show’s top. But if he is a gallery owner who likes his talk tall, he is also a man who enjoys being put in his place by steely women. His dream girl comes along in the pleasing figure of Setsuko Hearn (Tess Lina), an art historian who impresses him with her knowledge of dynastic nuances and erudite insults. Better still, she doesn’t seem overly concerned about an ice-pick wound Darius accidentally self-inflicts while attempting to chill wine at a party he’s throwing for a modern Japanese artist.

The two have counterparts — John Bell (Jim Anzide), a scholarly nebbish, and his platonic friend Claire Tsong (Melody Butiu). Both work for Darius — John is his worshipful assistant, while painter Claire bitterly toils away restoring old artworks. First for sport, then for keeps, the pair concocts the forgery of a rare pillow book — the calligraphied diary of an 11th-century Japanese courtesan. Everyone immediately and enthusiastically buys into the fake, including Setsuko and Darius’ academic friend, Owen Matthiassen (John Apicella), setting Owen’s East Asian studies department atwitter while sparking a bidding war among auction houses and museums.

Most important, though, Darius himself falls for the fraud, based on some snapshots of the scroll and John’s imaginative "translation" of the text. The irony is not lost on us, since Darius has established his ability to spot fakes and derives a feeling of superiority over the pathetically hoodwinked. (His first detection of a forgery was, as a youth, of a print his father owned — a mildly Oedipal moment in Darius’ life that snowballed into a career.) In an insanely glib moment he instructs John to pay the pillow book’s owner one and a half million pounds without even having touched the manuscript, let alone subjecting it to the withering scrutiny with which he earlier dismissed a putative antique print belonging to Owen.

36 Views comprises 36 scenes but takes its name from a collection of wood-block prints of Mount Fuji by the 19th-century Japanese artist Hokusai, and suggests the many angles by which human events can be viewed. More fundamentally, Iizuka’s play draws its intellectual frisson from two relatively recent theater genres that deal with the art world (see Yasmina Reza’s Art, Jon Robin Baitz’s Ten Unknowns, Simon Gray’s The Old Masters) and the shifting layers of people’s perceptions (Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, Harold Pinter’s Old Times). Throw in much gallery lingo and a Derridian tussle over the meaning of authorship, and 36 Views has the ingredients of a story meant to provoke both thought and laughter.

Unfortunately, these additives — while separately intriguing — don’t really jell into a satisfying whole and at times make the evening an arid seminar of psychological speculation. Key elements also seem forced. Darius, for example, presents his own charmingly roguish self-image to Setsuko — and us — early on. We then begin to judge him through our own "objective" eyes but, toward play’s end, Claire discloses a long-ago event that completely changes our opinion. The problem with her revelation is that, like so many important facts in this play, it is dictated to us instead of accumulated from the characters’ actions. And, while the story’s points about people’s eagerness to be deceived are well made, Darius’ gullibility seems far-fetched, especially when he accepts the authenticity of the ancient scroll based upon a couple of Polaroids. (An odd choice of technology in an age of videotape and digital photography, but then, Darius still makes ice cubes with a pick.)

Then there’s Iizuka’s awkward subplot involving the entrapment of Darius by an investigative reporter named Elizabeth Newman-Orr (Shannon Holt), who surreptitiously tape records the dealer agreeing to launder a national art treasure’s ownership papers. While 36 Views’ other people are fairly well drawn, Newman-Orr is a comparatively superficial personality whose words and actions border on caricature. (I spent part of the play trying to figure out why this sketchy character has three names.) There is, of course, a reason for Holt’s journalist to be here, but that narrative rationale seems contrived and director Chay Yew exacerbates things by having Newman-Orr played broadly instead of as the coy enigma she needs to be.

Another problem is that the playwright’s characters don’t act as collective narrators so much as docents, lecturing us on everything from the origin of plum wine to the writing habits of Heian-era women.

"Ume, it means summer plums," Setsuko notes. "By themselves, they’re bitter, but once they’ve aged in the shochu, the spirits, they become very sweet. It’s really, it’s lovely. Please, I don’t want to keep you from all your other guests." Don’t worry, babe, I’m outta here.

If such moments distance us from the play, then the story’s abrupt conclusion, in which most characters part wiser but not necessarily sadder, is even more alienating, as we learn that much of what has transpired comes without any real consequences. 36 Views’ ending is hardly climactic — an epilogue thrown out in a type of Q&A between Darius and Setsuko.

36 Views’ strength lies in its tart portrayal of art-world hustles and in the depth of its appreciation of Asian art. The two-hour, 15-minute evening is laced with choreographed scenes in which kimono’d figures silently drift across the stage as layers of fabric and lies are shed, just as Iizuka reveals stories behind stories. Whenever Setsuko reads aloud from John’s forgery, the stage comes to life with masked courtesans bearing fans or parasols. Although this production is not as visually ambitious as Iizuka’s script would like, Yew moves his cast across those wooden planks gracefully enough; a few bits of furniture are brought on and off quickly, cast members not performing sit in the simple chairs and observe the action, whose beats are marked by the frequent rap of wooden clappers. (Before the evening is through, we get to know those clappers all too well.) Yew gets some strong technical help from costumer Lydia Tanji and lighting designer José López, with Nathan Wang’s flute music adding atmosphere, crisply delivered by David Edwards’ sound design.

Caffrey and Lina make what they can with their respective roles of buccaneer-dealer and refrigerated academic, but the script doesn’t make their romantic attraction interesting. If Darius and Setsuko’s affair forms the play’s magnetic center, its true north is actually John and Claire — the two neurotic characters whose decisions are necessary for the rest of the drama to exist. John is a man who changes personalities (the only character to do so) while Claire is his Lady Macbeth, a woman whose transformative anger pushes him to go through with his forgery — and ultimately into a fame that, like most of the story’s turning points, occurs offstage. While Anzide’s performance only implies John’s emotional turmoil, Butiu is more at home with Claire’s nihilistically vengeful impulses and her portrayal stands in sharp contrast to the cool detachment of the other characters. In the end, she underscores the play’s need for more content and less form — that is, for more action and less elegance.

36 VIEWS | By NAOMI IIZUKA | At LAGUNA PLAYHOUSE, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach | Through January 30 | (949) 497-2787

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Reach the writer at smikulan@laweekly.com

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