The cool thing about Stuck Elevator, the latest world premiere at American Conservatory Theater, is that it’s a sung-through musical about a Chinese delivery guy getting stuck in the elevator of a Bronx apartment building for 81 hours without food or water. That’s also the problematic thing about it. The show’s based on a true story, and while the fact of this guy getting stuck in an elevator is fascinating, actually watching someone stuck in an elevator gets tedious after a while. The creators of the play have to work very, very hard to keep things interesting, and the strain shows.
Guang is an undocumented Chinese immigrant working as a deliveryman for a Chinese restaurant. He works hard to send money to his wife and son back home and also to pay off the “Snakehead” who arranged for him to be smuggled into the United States in an inhumanely dangerous voyage. Inside the elevator he frets about lost wages until his bodily needs drown that worry out. He doesn’t want to push the button to call the police, afraid that they’ll arrest and deport him, so he waits for someone to notice the elevator’s out of service and to call a repairman.
Director Chay Yew’s production pulls out all the stops to build out the world inside Guang’s head from within the confines of his cramped quarters, with an inventive set by Daniel Ostling and beautiful use of projections by Kate Freer. The songs by composer Byron Au Yong and librettist Aaron Jefferis are an eclectic mix of everything from opera to hip-hop. They’re also all over the place in subject matter, from laments about having to pee to paeans to Orange Beef to elaborate fantasies about striking it rich in Atlantic City or becoming a superhero wrestler, Takeout Man, battling the dreaded Snakehead and Elevator Monster (giving costumer Myung Hee Cho something especially fun to do).
Julius Ahn is awfully sympathetic and likeable as Guang, with a gentle demeanor and a lovely voice, which makes being stuck with him seem not quite so bad. Joel Perez inserts a jolt of energy as Guang’s wisecracking, beatboxing coworker and roommate Marco.
The decision to set the whole show inside the elevator makes sense because more than anything what you take away from the story is that this poor guy was stuck in a freaking elevator for 81 hours, and you want the play to give a sense of that experience as best it can. The show is only 81 minutes, not 81 hours, which is very short for a musical but a very long time to watch a guy be stuck in an elevator.
If you read the program, there’s a short account of the true story on which the show is based. The writeup by Dan Rubin and Cait Robinson focuses more on what went on outside the elevator while 35-year-old Ming Kuang Chen was stuck in the elevator in April 2005. (To add insult to injury, he got trapped on April Fool’s Day, as if the world was playing a terrible prank on him.) We find out that there was a large search underway for him after he went missing, and the news media also got involved, outing Chen as an undocumented immigrant. It’s a fascinating story, but the trouble is that it’s much more interesting than the story being told onstage.
Because the whole play is told from the perspective of Guang inside the elevator, he doesn’t know about any of the stuff going on outside. Any encounters we witness with any of the people Guang knows takes place in his imagination, from something as seemingly simple as Marco passing by and giving him advice to anxious exchanges with his faraway wife (an alternately sweet and oppressive Marie-France Arcilla) and son (a naive and demanding Raymond J. Lee). But we know them only through Guang’s fantasies and anxieties and have no idea what the characters are actually like in the “real” world.
It’s hard to tell what many of his fantasies have to do with anything. What’s the Atlantic City thing about? Why is there suddenly a wrestling match? What are we supposed to take from an imaginary encounter with his brother-in-law (Joseph Anthony Foronda, who also plays the boss’s wife in drag), who’s abandoned his family for an imaginary new life? The anxieties about being an illegal immigrant are somewhat ham-handed, from violent encounters with imaginary security guards to a Mephistophelean INS officer. And as a friend pointed out, the death of a loved one on the voyage over is given the same dramatic weight as his aching bladder. After a while, the weightiest matters begin to feel trivial. His crushing sense of responsibility to support his family is equal to his crushing shame at having peed his pants.
There’s a lot of it that’s touching, a lot that’s tedious, and a lot that doesn’t make any sense, which I suppose is also true of the experience of being trapped somewhere that long without food or water. In that sense, it’s also apropos when you find yourself much more interested in what’s going on outside the elevator that what’s going on inside it, and frustrated that you can’t see any of that. Welcome to Guang’s world—he’s right there with you. And if the ending is pretty anticlimactic, well, that’s because what happens next—which is to say, what we’ve been waiting for this whole time—happens outside of the elevator, where we’re not allowed. All we can do is make our own escape into the world outside the theater door, which may give the sense of release we’ve been craving.
Show #41 of 2013, attended April 16.