Who could be more invisible in contemporary American society than a gay Asian American man? And don't we all sometimes feel that the rest of the world is looking right through us and missing the most important things about us?
Those questions are at the heart of "BEE," the latest work by California playwright Prince Gomolvilas presented by Arlington's Asian Stories in America Theatre (ASIA). The premise is intriguing, and this is a lively production, but "BEE" ultimately provides a lightly entertaining buzz with little actual bite.
Korean American Devon is a young and pixyish gay man. He has been invisible for the last year, passing among us without notice. Then he meets Gina at a bus stop. An older and world-weary black woman, she can see and hear him, although she would prefer just to get on with her day.
Devon enlists the reluctant Gina to help him lick the invisibility thing, and off they go on a little adventures, along the way meeting other people marginalized in, but not clearly by, society.
The situation is ripe with opportunity to explore the Asian American experience of being part of a culture that for so long has generally not taken much notice. But with Gomolvilas's lightweight script, full of playful language and pop culture references, we learn almost nothing about Devon, his character or what life was like before he suddenly became unable to reflect light.
Is he invisible because he is Asian? Because much of the non-Asian world does not differentiate between, say, Korean, Chinese or Thai ancestry? Or is it because he is gay and, as played here by Steve Lee, more than just a bit precious?
Maybe we learn little about him because the playwright did not have much to say. The oft-quoted line that it's best to write about what you know may be wrong in this case. The witty, nimble-minded Gomolvilas seems overly protective of Devon's psyche and deflects our scrutiny with armor-thick shtick.
We do, however, learn a lot about the complicated Gina, a socially isolated Las Vegas cocktail waitress with no man and a son in prison, effectively portrayed with depth and grit by Debbie Minter Jackson. Even though they are all stereotypes, we also get to know an embittered cabbie, an alcoholic college professor, a stoned paranormal investigator and a spiritually confused priest, all played by versatile Rosemary Regan and Lonny Smith, better than we get to know Devon.
Gomolvilas does have Devon and Gina talk about Korean-black antagonism in poor neighborhoods in a discussion that provokes a bit of heat, but it never gets much beyond the bumper-sticker slogan stage and is soon dropped.
Killer bees are a recurring theme in "BEE." They seem to be everywhere in Vegas, a familiar setting for Gomolvilas's plays and his commentary on contemporary American culture. Bees have killed the cabby's wife, invaded the yard of the hippie paranormalist, etc. Bumblebees are said to lack the aerodynamic structure to allow them to fly, but they do. They are also black and yellow. Sounds like Devon and Gina's relationship.
The bees provide the best moment of the play, commentary both funny and trenchant, when Gina archly points out that the actual name for the more commonly referred to "killer" bee, is Africanized honeybee. Devon wryly asks, "Wonder who named them?" "The Man!" they exclaim in unison, finding common ground.
Director Edu. Bernardino has adroitly packaged the material, whipping his cast into high energy and allowing Regan and Smith to go delightfully over the top in their various incarnations. Bernardino's setting is spare but effective, keeping the attention focused squarely on the characters. It's too bad they don't have more to say.
"BEE," by ASIA, runs through May 3 at Theatre on the Run, 3700 S. Four Mile Run Dr., Arlington. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturdays. For reservations, call 703-979-0875.