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Theater Review: ‘You for Me for You’

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Peeling the lid off a nation drowning in its own delusions is no small challenge. For confirmation, witness the difficulties playwright Mia Chung and her director Yury Urnov encounter in their world-premiere staging of “You for Me for You,” a stylistic hodgepodge of a play about a myopic culture fed by falsehood and what seems to outsiders a perversion of the concept of sacrifice.

Actually, Chung explores two cultures at Woolly Mammoth Theatre: the North Korea that Junhee (Ruibo Qian) flees and the America to which she reluctantly tries to adapt. Neither, unfortunately, is conjured here with the fierceness of insight that might enlarge our understanding of either country, or even the characters themselves. The play falls back disappointingly instead on impressions one could lift from any Web site: the deprivation and psychological conditioning of North Korean society, the shallowness and rapaciousness of American consumerism.

The superficial themes translate into the sort of physical production that suggests a textbook rather than an original thesis. Early in the play, North Korea’s personality cult is illustrated by the familiar display of a trio of immense, heroic posters of dynastic leaders of the nation’s totalitarian era. Later, as Junhee shops for electronics in New York, three immense posters materialize again, this time featuring screens of smart phones.

Recall Robin Williams passing out at the sight of the teeming coffee aisle of a Manhattan supermarket in the 1984 movie “Moscow on the Hudson” and you will get a far richer image of communist refugee culture-shock than anything dramatized on the Woolly stage. To be sure, “You for Me for You” only reaches occasionally for that type of social comedy. All told, the play’s unwieldy shifts in tone, the director’s heavy hand and most crucially, the central characters’ underdevelopment, will leave some audience members wondering what ultimately this production has in mind.

You get the sense here, as in some other recent mountings of new plays, such as Bill Cain’s rangy “Equivocation” at Arena Stage and Bryony Lavery’s tedious “Dirt” at Studio Theatre, of dramatists filling up stages with more ideas or plot threads than they know how to effectively tie together.

As happened in these other works, the characters can’t compete with the conceits, and so they remain mere constructions themselves. We meet Junhee and her older sister Minjee (Jo Mei) in their rural North Korean village, fighting over who can be the nobler: There is only enough rice for one person, and neither sister wants to deprive the other. The notion of selfless deferral, reinforced in the title, permeates the rest of the tale, as the sisters find a smuggler (Francis Jue) and depart with him for the border. (Daniel Ettinger’s utilitarian, vertical maze of a set, mounted on a turntable, reminds you of one of “Survivor’s” immunity challenges.)

Only Junhee has the strength to cross, and once she resettles in New York she placidly absorbs what seems a garish mercenary jungle. One of the play’s cleverer ideas is how it treats Junhee’s understanding of English. A gallery of obnoxious American women, all dressed by the excellent designer Frank Labovitz in bubblegum pink — and all portrayed with customary comic verve by Kimberly Gilbert — speaks to Junhee in an English vernacular evolving from gibberish to jumbles of comprehensible words and finally, to fluent conversation.

Still, this inspired bit of invention is not integrated into the storytelling in any consistent way; the intrusion of devices may be even deliberately inconsistent. But the whimsy of it all comes to feel unhelpfully random, as when Junhee and a suitor in a Stetson played by Matthew Dewberry burst suddenly into song, Rodgers and Hammerstein style, to croon about a life together. (As the music swells, a house, a wedding cake and a baby carriage roll on, courtesy of the turntable.) It’s a surprise, but an empty one.

The sisterly bond Qian and Mei manage to forge seems to occur in spite of the schematic nature of their characters. Jue is satisfactory in a pair of colorless roles and Dewberry has the even tougher job of helping us understand why a man pursues for a year a woman who barely acknowledges him. The sense of missed connection is not so far from the feeling a spectator is left with as well.

You for Me for You

by Mia Chung. Directed by Yury Urnov. Sets, Daniel Ettinger; movement, Noako Maeshiba; costumes, Frank Labovitz; lighting, Andrew Griffin; sound, Elisheba Ittoop; sound, Mike Iveson Jr. with Francis Cabatac. About 90 minutes. Through Dec. 2 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St. NW. Visit www.woollymammoth.net or call 202-393-3939.

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