An unfortunate 'Joy Luck'

Publication Date: Friday Apr 23, 1999

An unfortunate 'Joy Luck'

TheatreWorks has its hands full in trying to stage Amy Tan's complex novel

by Michael J. Vaughn

TheatreWorks' West Coast premiere of "The Joy Luck Club" can best be summed up as a beautiful, many-splendored mess. Although Susan Kim's adaptation delivers quite a few memorable moments, it fails to encompass the four mother-daughter pairs of Amy Tan's novel in any stage-worthy, comprehensible fashion.

It could well be argued that Tan's novel doesn't belong on a stage in any form. As it is, Kim's adaptation takes on this bicultural, bigenerational epic by resorting to a narrative-voice style full of declarative statements, the equivalent of a well-dramatized book reading.

The majority of the first act is spent in a labored setting-up of the modern-day conflicts between the Chinese-American mothers and their increasingly embarrassed, American-born daughters ("She opens jars in supermarkets to smell what's inside," complains one). Though it produces some interesting moments--a chess prodigy's shame at her mother's excessive boasting, the shockingly sudden drowning of a 4-year-old brother at a family beach outing--none of these relationships sticks around long enough to make much of a dent.

The good stuff arrives in the second act, when, with the pre-exposition finally out of the way, the scenes are allowed to put up their feet and stay a while.

The first of these successes comes when the aforementioned chess prodigy, Waverly Jong (Bonnie Akimoto), uses the excessive pride of her mother, Lindo Jong (Lisa Lu), against her, tricking her into showing off her culinary skills in a long-delayed dinner with her fiance, Rich Shields (Edward Graham). When the meeting turns into a comical display of Rich's "Ugly American" ignorance of Chinese customs, Lindo tells her daughter of her own premarital barriers, how the language difference between her own Mandarin tongue and the Cantonese of her husband, Tin (Edward Kwong), forced them to conduct their courtship in very awkward English.

The most compelling of these flashbacks involves An-Mei Hsu (Dewi Yee), who tries to enervate her wishy-washy daughter, Rose Hsu Jordan (Kerry Susan Lee), with the tale of Rose's grandmother (Doan Ly), who was forced into a life as a concubine and found her only escape in suicide, a self-poisoning right before her daughter's eyes.

Note the great complexity of just these two subplots, then consider that they represent possibly one-third of the second act, and you'll see the inherent difficulty of adapting a novel with the popularity and epic nature of "Joy Luck." If the playwright makes the much-needed slashes, every Amy Tan fan in the audience cries foul; if she tries to stay true to the book, we get a labyrinthine, many-tentacled monster that simply doesn't belong on a stage.

Let me go further by daring Susan Kim to go back and turn the subplot of An-Mei Hsu into its own separate play. It would be a great work and also a display of great artistic courage--if only in dropping the franchise name of "The Joy Luck Club" from its title.

It would also go against a strong and particularly toxic current trend, the way we submit our commercially successful literary works to an endless multimedia milking. Witness "Bright Lights Big City," the musical. "Dead Man Walking," the opera. "Under the Tuscan Sun," the calendar, recipe book, bath oils and refrigerator magnets.

"The Joy Luck Club" had a beautiful life as a novel and, later, as a film, because both of these genres have the technical capacity to deliver its full, epic, multiple-plot complexity. The only thing we do by trying to mash it down into play form is to dilute the power of the original, and in this we are doing Amy Tan no favors.

What: TheatreWorks presents "The Joy Luck Club."

When: Continues through May 2.

Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, Mercy and Castro streets.

How much: Tickets are $19-$35.

Information: Call 903-6000. 

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