"Hi, I'm Winston," begins the protagonist in "Big Hunk o' Burnin' Love," the mild-mannered maiden production of Asian Stories in America (ASIA) Theatre Company at the Clark Street Playhouse. "I have low self-esteem."
What Winston really has--thanks in part to that self-esteem problem--is love trouble. In Winston's Thai American family, anyone still single at the age of 30 (his 30th birthday is only days away) spontaneously self-combusts. As proof of this weird phenomenon, his frightened parents trot out the ashes of his uncle, who went up in flames only last week.
The cultural clash in the play, written by Prince Gomolvilas, is as much generational as it is ethnic. Winston's parents are so incurably Old World that they order him a bride from Thailand, reasoning, "Of course she's your type. She's Thai." But they are comfortable enough in the New World that they wear matching sweat suits and buy the Clapper, which Winston's mother proudly uses several times to plunge the stage into total darkness.
But the play's issues (always raised gently) take a back seat to matters of true love and extremely old-fashioned romantic comedy plotting that is largely driven by that peculiar curse. So one minute you'll see Nick, Winston's swaggering best friend (now married to Sylvia, Winston's blond American ex-girlfriend), provocatively theorizing about the Asian Man's Burden--a lack of exotic cachet, romantically speaking. Then you'll see Winston fretfully counting the hours to his scheduled combustion and hitting on strange women with such desperate openers as "My name is Winston. Are you married?" He's an archetypal nebbish, recognizable in any culture.
The characters are all cute--absolutely kitschy, in the parents' case--and the play is warm but only intermittently funny, so a maddening neutrality ultimately takes over. The cautious production, directed by Stan Kang, doesn't help. The show is being staged on Giorgos Tsappas's sleek wood set for the Washington Shakespeare Company's ongoing production of "Entertaining Mr. Sloane," and it feels like borrowed space. The acting is generally bright and broad in the generic sitcom style, but the actors come up with some original colorings just often enough to keep boredom at bay.
Miyuki Williams, as Winston's mother, sheds crocodile tears with pathetic majesty as she schemes to get Winston to marry Noi, the mail order teen from Thailand. On the other end of the spectrum, Samantha Kearney broods well as the troubled Sylvia, who suffers from symbol-laden breast cancer (she bitterly wonders why husband Nick didn't detect it) and who may still harbor a little flame for Winston. Richard Dorton's Nick offers an effectively wistful commentary on the foolishness of romantic pop songs; the play's title evokes Elvis Presley, of course, and lyrical froth from the hits of Bette Midler and Tina Turner occasionally creeps into the dialogue.
ASIA Artistic Director Edu. Bernardino is best known in Washington as a talented, often daring costume designer, but he has also turned in some fascinating performances playing characters with style and flamboyance. Here he's ably designed the costumes--frumpy for Winston, sharp for Nick and Sylvia, funny for the parents--and he plays Winston. The role isn't a natural fit, but Bernardino manages to work a vein of chronic worry and discomfort that gets him through. In a monologue about a nightmare in which the "poltergeist" lady tries to coax him "into the light," Bernardino gets to cut loose for a moment, venturing into more aggressive comic territory and getting a bigger payoff. He combusts a little bit, something this production doesn't do often enough.
Big Hunk o' Burnin' Love, by Prince Gomolvilas. Directed by Stan Kang. Lights, Ayun Fedorcha; sound and music design, Ron Oshima and Brian Nelson. With Michelle T. Hall and Al Twanmo. Through Jan. 8 at the Clark Street Playhouse, 601 S. Clark St., Arlington. Call 703-418-9703.