Like David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross,” King’s play, receiving its U.S. premiere at Studio Theatre, is a comedy of petty corruptions, activated by the base impulses that can drive the lust for a buck. While Mamet’s milieu was a seedy real estate operation, King’s is the contrived glamour of beauty products. In both situations, greed elbows out ethics and duping the clientele brings the promise of riches. Except it’s an empty promise, built on lies and doomed to poison everything.
“White Pearl’s” twist is to set this story of the wages of capitalism among young Asian women of various nationalities, and watch as the rivalries, ethnic misunderstandings and outright prejudices explode. It turns out that a businesswoman from the Subcontinent can be as dumb about the differences between North and South Korea as any geopolitical illiterate across the ocean and that a Chinese marketing executive can entertain the same racist stereotypes as a backward-thinking white supremacist.
What’s gratifying on this occasion is the convergence on a mainstream Washington stage of so many potent actresses of Asian descent: The unifying adjective for their work, under the direction of Desdemona Chiang, is ferocious. Parasuraman makes of company head Priya a stately fount of arrogance and entitlement; Narea Kang’s Soo-Jin, the firm’s South Korean biochemist, is a chafing, boiling cauldron of resentment. Resa Mishina applies a useful veneer of genial deference to Ruki, the Japanese business manager; Jody Doo hides the insecurities of Singaporean staffer Sunny persuasively behind a wall of foul-mouthed hipness; and Jenna Zhu melts down admirably as the Chinese marketing employee, Xiao, who faces political persecution at home if she loses her job at Clearday.
King tantalizingly sets up the satirical underpinnings of “White Pearl,” which take place in set designer Debra Booth’s glossy realization of Clearday’s sterile headquarters; the description of the racially tone-deaf commercial, and the online outrage it engenders, give the play some amusing propulsion. The retrograde notions of female self-image that inform the company ethos — “Women hate the way they look,” Priya declares proudly — offer further backup for the sense that Clearday’s skin-bleaching product is bottled evil. As one employee asks another: Is there ever such a thing in Asian culture as being too white?
Alas, the plot doesn’t so much thicken as weaken, especially as it veers into the abusive entanglement of a rich, brash American employee, Diana Huey’s Built Suttikul, with the play’s sole male character, Marcel Benoit (Zachary Fall). The Frenchman’s obsession with Built has a pivotal impact on Clearday’s public-
relations emergency, but Marcel’s role comes across as false and facile. The unconvincing histrionics (and more) that attend the couple’s tawdry reunion only diminish the play’s comic strengths, leading to a silly, unsatisfying conclusion. As a result, “White Pearl’s” mission feels less than fully accomplished.
Chiang keeps the production percolating efficiently, until the material begins to let her down. Like Clearday, “White Pearl” might want to consider further consultation to shore up its strategic plan.
White Pearl, by Anchuli Felicia King. Directed by Desdemona Chiang. Set, Debra Booth; costumes, Helen Huang; lighting, Wen-Ling Liao; sound, Melanie Chen Cole; projections, Rasean Davonte Johnson. About 90 minutes. $60-$90. Through Dec. 8 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. 202-332-3300. studiotheatre.org.
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