Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Hot Asian Doctor Husband is the name of Leah Nanako Winkler's play now on view in a world premiere production commissioned by Theater Mu, who premiered her Two Mile Hallow in 2018 to wide acclaim (I must admit to being an exception in my reservations about that play). The two plays share the playwright's interest in the dominance of whiteness that puts communities of colorand, in these two plays, Asian-Americans in particularin jeopardy of wasting away. In Two Mile Hallow, the way for Asians to assume positions of privilege was to totally adopt the values and behaviors of white ruling class, depicted as shallow and self-absorbed. In Hot Asian Doctor Husband, her strategy is to stave off the erosion of cultural diversity through intermarriage among races and ethnicities, which, left unchecked, will result in uniformly murky skin colors with white behaviors and values triumphing over the populace.
For about three fourths of Hot Asian Doctor Husband, we are treated to a well-tuned romantic comedy, opening with Emi struggling to explain to Collin why she no longer can love him, leaving him both heartbroken and perplexed. Emi meets her hot Asian doctor, whom she hopes to make her husband, but he turns out to be a far less desirable catch than she had in mind. Wearing his hospital whites, he introduces himself to the audience, saying "I am a doctor. I am Asian. I am told I am hot. I am ... a hot Asian doctor." Turns out he is something else, too.
On a parallel track we meet Leonard, Emi's platonic friend since childhood, an aspiring actor who doesn't have to sweat too much over breaking into the business because his wealthy parents support him. Leonard, who is black, thinks Collin is perfect for Emi, even if he is white, and tries mightily to dissuade her from breaking up with him. For his own part, Leonard is commitment phobic. His current dalliance is with Veronica, a young but whip-smart and strong-spirited woman.
Winkler's dialogue is extremely smart and funny, turning out one-liners at a rapid clip and capturing the approach/avoidance zeitgeist we live in. A back and forth conversation about how long to wait after a text before responding is hilariousand probably good dating advice. All of this hums along really well, keeping the audience guessing how Emi will sort out the emotional jam she gets herself into. Then, all at once, the play changesa lot. Emi appears to be having a breakdown, and enters into a dream where she revisits her girlhood with her mother, played with a mix of polite modesty and a tendency to toss out the F-bomb as casually as she might serve a cup of tea. Visually, we get this point almost at once, as she is seen wearing bright knee-high vinyl red boots and a traditional Japanese kimono, with her hair rolled up in a greatly exaggerated manner of a geisha.
If this were an interlude in which Emi gains insights that she uses to resolve her ambivalent feelings about safeguarding her cultural heritage while finding a man worthy of sharing her life, and then applied to her journey with some sort of conclusion, or at least a reasonable resting place, it might have served the play. While Emi is given a form of solace, the playwright offers nothing to indicate where she goes from here. Emi is left stranded, and so are we.
What does work, and works really well, is framing each scene like its own mini-play, delivering plentiful laughs between concrete beginning and end points. A few scenes allow characters to step outside the narrative and present themselves: the doctor does a wild ballet that strains to be erotic to display his hot-ness; Collin, his upstate New York wholesomeness on view, strums a guitar while awkwardly trying to compose lyrics for a folk song to release his feelings for Emi; and Veronica follows along with a self-help yoga tape that she hopes will rid her mind of Leonard. These are hilarious bits that manage to enhance rather than distract from the flow of Winkler's narrative.
Meghan Kreidler is wonderful as Emi, wearing a wig that seems to be doing battle against her Asian roots, tottering bravely between her roles as a bright, romantic comedienne and a tortured, motherless child. Mikell Sapp plays Leonard with the smug assurance of someone who can afford to have elusive dreams that would keep most men on edge. His interplay with Kreidler's Emi is especially well played by both actors, delightfully revealing the unconscious rhythms that exist between two very old friends. Eric Sharp is blunt and icy as the hot Asian doctor who draws out feelings when talking about a patient, but otherwise is programmed to care only about satisfying his own needs. Sharp wins everyone's applause with his manic, graceless performance of the Hot Asian Doctor dance.
As Collin, Damien Leverett handily persuades everyone in the room that he is, in fact, the perfect boyfriend. Danielle Troiano is a young actor who brings the independent spirit and self-awareness that separate Veronica from the other characters. As Emi's mother, stage veteran Sun Mee Chomet is, as always, a pleasure to watch, but the role is such an unrealized device, that for all her effort and credibility, the character does not have much of an effect.
The physical production works well. Sarah Brandner's set includes a console that transforms from being a lounge bar to a bed getting plenty of use, and three towering trees with cherry blossoms serve as a motif repeated several times during the play. Jeni O'Malley has chosen apt costumes for each of the characters, with the exception of the costume Chomet wears as Emi's mother, described above, which is intentionally not apt. Light and sound elements are effective throughout.
At an hour and forty-five minutes, without intermission, the play feels longespecially give the final half hour or so, that seems to fall to stage from some other place. Would there be a way for the successful rom-com that was playing until then to draw forth a conclusion without giving the audience so severe a jolt? That may not be what the playwright wanted to achieve. As it stands, her achievement is laudable, but comes to a halt before the play reaches its conclusion.
Theater Mu's Hot Asian Doctor Husband, through September 1, 2019, at the Mixed Blood Theatre, 1501 S. Fourth Street, Minneapolis MN. All tickets "Pay What You Can". $5.00 - $50.00, suggested fair market value - $35.00. For information or tickets call 651-789-1012 or go to theatermu.org.
Playwright: Leah Nanako Winkler; Director: Seonjae Kim; Design: Sarah Brandner; Costume Design: Jeni O'Malley; Lighting Design: Karin Olsen; Sound Design: Katherine Horowitz; Properties Design: Abbee Warmboe; Original Music: Katherine Horowitz, Damian Leverett; Choreography: Magnolia Yang Sao Yia; Intimacy Consultant: Lauren Keating; Video Programmer: Richard Graham; Stage Manager: Raúl Ramos..
Cast: Sun Mee Chomet (Mother), Meghan Kreidler (Emi), Damian Leverett (Collin), Maekalah Ratsabout (Little Girl), Mikell Sapp (Leonard), Eric Sharp (Hot Asian Doctor Husband), Danielle Troiano (Veronica).