The mystifying success of Lucy Kirkwood’s “Chimerica” grows only more puzzling with its American premiere at Studio Theatre. After three-hours-plus of lumbering exposition, you leave the playhouse on 14th Street no more enlightened about the sprawling piece’s host of “serious” concerns than when you arrived.
The play ricochets back and forth between the Beijing and New York of 1989 and 2012, purporting to unravel some truths about the social and cultural comprehension gap that divides the world’s dominant economic powers, China and the United States. But darned if you can identify one truly illuminating current running through this work, which in the end isn’t anything more than a middling newspaper drama — and one that doesn’t even get much about American journalism right.
It was quite the award-winning sensation in London, where I first encountered it in the summer of 2013. Then again, the kind of British play that delights London theatergoers with a sour superiority about American society and politics doesn’t always have the same effect here. Consider the disastrous 2010 Broadway transfer of the British satire “Enron,” which lamely lampooned the scandals surrounding that Texas energy company’s shoddy business practices. It opened and closed in the space of 12 days.
At least director David Muse’s production at Studio, where he is the artistic head, isn’t the shrill act of caricature that often had the London audience I saw “Chimerica” with in stitches. Muse’s 12-member cast is a cut above the original production’s, and so the story gets a more intelligent handling. But the soberer approach also underlines the flimsiness of the material. “Chimerica” manages at once to feel overwritten and underweight.
It’s essentially a detective story, born of the erratic friendship between an American newspaper photographer (Ron Menzel) and the Chinese teacher (Rob Yang) he meets on assignment there. Menzel’s fictional Joe Schofield was first in Beijing in 1989, at the time of the uprising in Tiananmen Square, and from his hotel room he captured an image that was beamed around the world: that of the Tank Man, an unidentified protester who stood in the way of the Chinese tanks and became an international symbol of ordinary Chinese citizens’ resistance.
Twenty-three years later, Joe, working for a major New York newspaper not identified here as the New York Times (although it was named in the production at London’s Almeida Theatre), gets a tip that the Tank Man is alive and living in New York. Joe enlists the long-distance help of Yang’s Zhang Lin, who’s still mourning the death of his wife (Kelsey Wang) in the 1989 uprising. (He has a recurring hallucination of her, by the way, inside his refrigerator.) Meantime, Joe’s boss (Paul Morella), an aggressive, sarcastic type out of the Big-City Editor Casting Manual, demands that Joe drop the story, because the bigwigs over in corporate don’t want to upset the Chinese authorities by rehashing such damaging memories.
We are subjected to every twist and turn in Joe’s increasingly ludicrous investigation, a probe that makes him an unlikely employee of a news outlet with any ethical bearings. He and a reporter who seems merely along for the ride (and played by the always excellent Lee Sellars) give not a second thought to paying Chinatown informants for leads about the Tank Man. And then, Joe — who is on a first-name basis with everyone from beat cops to U.S. senators — goes even further. Talk about overkill: Seeking the help of a national politician to obtain the Tank Man’s address through party donation records (!), Joe threatens to publish a photograph of the politician as a teenager snorting cocaine.
Bad journalists can make for good characters. But bad plotting makes for flawed plays.
The acting and look of Studio’s “Chimerica” are unassailable, with set designer Blythe R. D. Quinlan creating an impressively compact structure of moving floors and rooms with paper screens to accommodate the swift scene shifts between Beijing and New York. Yang turns in an especially fine performance as a man of principle bearing unending personal and civic tragedy. Menzel ably conveys the single-mindedness of Joe’s mission, and Tessa Klein proves exemplary in support, playing a British marketing pro who falls in love with Joe even as she loses faith in the practice of reducing whole cultures to PowerPoint demographics.
As for any sense of a larger meaning, though, for Zhang Lin’s suffering and Joe Schofield’s searching, that eludes “Chimerica,” a play that takes us halfway around the world, and still feels as though it goes nowhere fast.
by Lucy Kirkwood. Directed by David Muse. Set, Blythe R.D. Quinlan; costumes, Helen Huang; lighting, Mary Louise Geiger; sound, Matt Tierney; projections, Zachary G. Borovay; dramaturg, Lauren Halvorsen; dialects, Zach Campion; fight director, Cliff Williams III. With Julie-Ann Elliott, Kenneth Lee, Jordan Barbour, Diana Oh, Jacob Yeh, Jade Wu. About 3 hours 10 minutes. Tickets, $44-$88. Through Oct. 18 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Visit studiotheatre.org or call 202-332-3300.