A key conversation in Hansol Jung’s “Among the Dead” spins out at surreal length as two characters plummet from an exploded bridge. One of the falling characters is a wisecracking Jesus.
Another sequence shows a terrified soldier witnessing a heinous war crime. The scene (which does not show the crime itself) is all the more striking because the play at other points contains so much humor.
Audacity is a hallmark of “Among the Dead,” now on view in a serviceable, decently acted Spooky Action Theater production, directed by Richard Henrich. The Yale-trained South Korean author of plays widely seen on U.S. stages, Jung makes daring formal and tonal choices in this deliberately disconcerting, decades-leaping work. But that doesn’t mean she lets style outweigh substance: The play’s phantasmagoria, time shifts, and gleefully incongruous juxtapositions turn out to be framing techniques for an affecting story about human weakness and resilience.
In the central narrative, set in the 1970s, a 30-year-old named Ana Woods (Julie M) travels to Seoul, where she meets a quirky hotel bellboy, who may be Jesus (Nahm Darr). After receiving a gift of an old journal, Ana is plunged into the World War II Burmese jungle, where she confronts Luke Woods (Chris Stinson), a lost American soldier. Luke befriends Number Four (Kyosin Kang), a Korean woman who has fled imprisonment as a Japanese army sex slave, but all does not go smoothly, as scenes set in 1950 Seoul make clear.
Channeling the soldier’s ambivalence, egoism and panic, Stinson is the cast standout. As the irreverent Ana, Julie M is a forceful presence, but the actress deploys broader comic brushstrokes than some of her castmates. Kang is suitably intense, and Darr is quite funny as the hip, often smart-alecky Jesus, who at one point leads Number Four in a celebratory dance in honor of her discovery of a much-needed can of Spam. (Amy MacDonald designed the costumes, which include army uniforms and Ana’s free-spirited garb.)
April Joy Vester’s hotel-room set, with its bamboo-patterned wallpaper, allots a nook for projections — a jungle, a Seoul streetscape — that align with the settings. It is movement, however, that conjures that fall from the 1950 Seoul bridge: The characters’ rippling arms and crouched stances convey the plunge, even as their impossibly leisurely conversation takes the action into a mystical dimension.
The plummet registers as more than a plot twist. It seems to symbolize the existential vertigo the play’s non-divine characters experience as they cope with personal failings, geographical and cultural dislocation, and the effects of war.
Among the Dead, by Hansol Jung. Directed by Richard Henrich. Assistant director, Danny Romeo; sound design, Navid Azeez; lighting, Hailey LaRoe; fight choreography, Chris Niebling; props, Alex Wade; movement coach, Tuyet Thi Pham. About 90 minutes. $20-$40. Through March 10 at Spooky Action Theater at the Universalist National Memorial Church, 1810 16th St. NW. spookyaction.org.