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Glenda Frank

Catch as Catch Can

“Catch as Catch Can” by Mia Chung, directed by Daniel Aukin
Peter J. Sharp Theatre of Playwrights Horizons
416 W. 42nd St., NYC.
Oct. 14 – Nov. 20, 2022.
Tues. – Sat. at 7:30 PM. Sat.-Sun. at 2 PM.
Contact info@phnyc.org or 212 564 1235 for more information.

Photo by Joan Marcus

“Catch as Catch Can” at Playwrights Horizons is one of the most confusing plays I’ve ever seen. So if you have tickets, be sure to do your homework. Which I didn’t. It was a hectic week, and I figured a revival of a highly praised 2018 play shouldn’t require more than respectful attention.

I paid attention. Still I don’t know what the play is about. Here’s what I can share. The play is almost 2 hours long with no intermission, but the seats are comfortable. There are 3 actors playing 6 roles: an Irish mother, an Italian mother and father, and three adult children, who are very disappointing to their parents. There’s nothing special about the mothers. The play opens with them gossiping about the British Royal Family. They share similar accents, which I couldn’t place. Someone thought Jewish. Someone thought Boston. They lose the accents here and there throughout the play, which is a good thing.

The characters are performed by Asian-American actors, which bewildered me and took me out of the play. Why this casting? Is it because the parents express anti-Korean sentiments? And then: Is it okay for Asian actors to play Irish and Italian characters? Is it okay for Irish and Italian actors to play Asian characters? I remember lots of picketing over casting issues.

Here are more details: Roberta Lavecchia, the daughter (Cindy Cheung), breaks off her engagement to Sam, an offstage Jewish man, because she doesn’t love him. The family is upset. They ask what’s love’s got to do with it. She’ll be alone. One son (Jon Norman Schneider) has married a Korean-American woman and they have a baby, which alienates his family. One son (Rob Yang) invents a Korean fiancée, tries to date Roberta, and has a nervous breakdown. One family considers selling the piano and debate prices. They prepare an elaborate Christmas party to which many neighbors (meticulously named) are invited. Each scene seems random, like a Frank O’Hara poem, his “I-do-this-I-do-that” build up only without the frisson as the poem closes.

Under the helm of Daniel Aukin, the former director of Soho Rep, the character switching is very subtle, so subtle it takes a while to figure out what’s happening, and by then the play has moved on. In the program notes, Chung writes about an assignment to create a short play after interviewing an Irish-American and an Italian-American actor, who described their mothers as “tough.” “Catch as Catch Can” seems more like acting exercises for a class. Because we spend so little time getting to know the characters before each scene jumps, they become two dimensional, caricatures. The actors, too, don’t seem to have built a backstory. I usually don’t admire a twitch, a limp, chain smoking, or the other gimmicks that performers use to indicate a change, but I would have appreciated it here instead of my having to say to myself, Oh, now the actor playing the son is the mother.

Was there an upside to my evening? Yes! At the end of the play Rob Yang gives a masterly performance as Tim Phelan, who has been hospitalized after an attempted suicide. I left the theatre wishing I could have gotten to know the reasons for the breakdown.

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