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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