Brother tonguesThere isn't a more complex or fascinating relationship being depicted on a Hawaii stage at the moment than that between Oscar and Ming, the protagonists of "A Language of Their Own," Chay Yew's stirring drama of desire and disease that opened last night at Kumu Kahua Theatre. As it happens, this tragic romance focuses on two gay Asian men, which may mislead you into thinking that "Language" is some sort of fringe theater experience. Nothing could be further from the truth. Yew's drama is unquestionably about a subgroup of a subgroup of American culture. But this is just the sort of paradox that lies behind much great theater. In "Language," just as in "Death of a Salesman," it is via the hard-nosed concentration on a narrow, specific milieu that a play achieves universality.
'Language' tenderly articulates
the art of relationships and caring
By Scott Vogel
If you've ever had one of those long, all-night conversations with your partner in which the sun came up while you decided your joint fate, you'll appreciate the extended tête-à-tête between Oscar and Ming that comprises Yew's first act. Marvelously staged by Harry Wong and exquisitely acted by J. Martin Romualdez and Alvin Chan, the dialogue covers everything from the duo's first furtive glances across a crowded room (each participating in the "ancient Chinese mating ritual" of never making the first move) to evenings spent smoking French cigarettes and listening to Erik Satie in their Boston apartment, to the full bloom of romance when they "acted like children in museums on Sundays," to Oscar's initiation of a breakup following the discovery that he has tested HIV-positive. It's the toughest of acting assignments -- creating the memory of a convincing love relationship even as it unravels -- but the performers, exceptionally well rehearsed, turn the act into a tour de force.
In this they are ably assisted by Yew's script, whose merit lies in its ability to skillfully and simultaneously treat topics of love, AIDS and Asian-American culture. There are plenty of zingers on the order of "You're Chinese -- you're supposed to be lousy at expressing yourself!" but also moments of genuine feeling when the characters try to deconstruct racial stereotypes even as they find themselves falling victim to them.
When Ming begs the repressed Oscar to fight with him, to "break things" if need be, Oscar stares at him aghast. "Then we'll have to replace them," he says in all sincerity. And Ming's mere suggestion that they should talk about their breakup inspires an immediate response of "You're getting ridiculous," quite as if relationships must never be spoken of.
Act 2 brings the arrival of Robert (JC Bishop) and Daniel (Norman M. Muñoz), the post-breakup paramours of Ming and Oscar, respectively. Ming and Robert move to Venice, Calif., while Oscar and Daniel remain in Boston, picking out furniture for their new pad during a long, hilarious and ultimately harrowing day at IKEA. During a span of mere minutes, Yew takes us from the showroom floor of one of America's most reliable discount furniture outlets to the grimy world of Hollywood bathhouses and beyond, arriving ultimately at a climax both devastating and apt. The playwright manages to answer his major dramatic question -- whether soulmates Ming and Oscar will ultimately find each other again -- in a way both satisfying and unforced. And the blizzardlike quartet scene that precedes it is with worth the price of admission alone.
There's much talk of the private language of the characters here (hence the title), of the little ways they understand each other without speaking. Honolulu audiences may well find this patois a bit disconcerting at first, especially those accustomed to less challenging fare. But if you listen hard, if you give Yew and his happy collaborators at Kumu Kahua a chance, eventually you will understand this pidgin: It is the unmistakable sound of theater that speaks to the way we live now.
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays to Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays, through Oct. 7.
"A Language of Their Own"
Where: Kumu Kahua Theater, 46 Merchant St.
Cost: $15, $10 for students
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