"Chinese Friends" by Jon Robin Baitz
Playwrights Horizons' Mainstage, 416 W. 42 St.
Tues.-Fri. 8:00 pm, Sat. 2:30, 8:00 pm, Sun. 2:30, 7:30 pm, $55. Student rush tickets will be available for $15 (cash only, day of performance, subject to availability). May 27-June 13.
Reviewed by Robert Hicks on May 30, 2004.
American playwright Jon Robin Baitz is the highly acclaimed author of "Ten Unknowns," "Three Hotels" and "The Substance of Fire." Any new play from him arrives with high anticipation of further success. Unfortunately, there are no guarantees in the theater world.
Apparently, Baitz merely plays games with us in his new miscalculated, politically futuristic drama "Chinese Friends." How else can one explain all his connived plot twists, character reversals and pretentious language?
Arthur Brice, played with just the right mix of pompous fatherly wisdom and cragginess by Peter Strauss, was the administrative brains behind a failed progressive presidential policy in 2008. Now in 2030, he lives alone and isolated on a New England island. He remains estranged from his son Ajax (Tyler Francavilla) who arrives with his communal friends Stephan (Will McCormack) and Alegra (Bess Wohl) seeking answers from Brice about his and their family's past.
Youthful rebellion, it seems in 2030, will come replete with arrogant, snarling sarcasm and unbridled talk of free love which these youth call living in a "temporary autonomous zone." Is that language pretentious enough for you? Well, Brice characterizes his son's sexual liberation as "Dionysian posing" which turns out to be more apt than "temporary autonomous zone." Whatever that term is supposed to mean.
After much pointless preaching about utopian ideals, these communal youth propose a game of "Chinese Friends." The title refers to a strategy board game, also called Reversi or Othello, based on the ancient Chinese game Go, in which one side wins by outflanking its opponent until all options are gone or the winner controls all four corners.
Baitz has his youthful characters enact this ritual through a series of physical abuse and sadistic mind games purportedly to elicit information about their lost family members from Brice. Just as the four prepare to sit down to a casual dinner in Brice's living room, the terror begins seemingly without provocation or motivation. Brice is handcuffed, held at gunpoint, battered and bloodied while being interrogated by Alegra, Stephan and his son, Ajax.
Alegra wants to know how her father disappeared. Stephan seeks answers to his father's political demise. Ajax needs to know why his mother committed suicide?
All these questions could hold some dramatic effect, if they weren't so buried in Baitz's contrived efforts to make a cogent argument for the failure of political idealism, democracy and humanism.
After all, Brice has told us about how the U.S. can't compete on world markets because other countries have made cheaper goods while the American government went into debt policing the world. And these three rebellious youth have reminded Brice about how his administrative decisions have led to the collapse of the U.N., the lack of clean water and the loss of Social Security.
Unfortunately, the answers to the many questions on these youth's minds are delivered to us via secret audio discs that Brice and his wife Julia made in the past. As the four characters sit in silence, motionless on stage, we're left to grapple with the tapes' meaning.
What's worse is that once all these sadistic mind games are complete, these youth tell us and Brice that it's all just been a test of Brice's ability to feel empathy. Then suddenly their scheme is somehow germane because they can now report information back to a committee and enlist people to help defeat opponents of a true democracy.
Now we're suddenly supposed to believe that Brice can embrace their ideals and feel his isolation and pain have not been in vain. Brice's factitious self-revelation merely sets us up for yet another unnatural reversal in plot and character. Next Ajax tells Brice there is no committee. "We've been playing you for 3 years."
Feeling betrayed by Brice regarding his mother's suicide, Ajax tells his father, "If we place our trust in those who betray trust, we have no hope." Ajax hoped to discover the idealist and humanist in Brice, but never found those qualities, so he condemns his father as a man incapable of love and leaves him forlorn and alone. We're left thinking no character in this play has any psychological credibility.
Baitz has a good story to tell about familial and political betrayal. Unfortunately, this time around, he does not communicate his meaning convincingly and he ineffectively dramatizes his ideas. [Hicks]