Vague New World


Show #71: Beijing, California, Asian American Theater Company, June 28

Wayne Lee and Garth Petal in AATC’s Beijing, California. Photo by Bob Hsiang Photography

By Sam Hurwitt

Local writer Paul Heller’s new play Beijing, California has an ambitious, sweeping premise. It posits a future in which the economy and ecology of the United States has collapsed. Unable to pay its huge debts, the US surrenders its entire government to China, suspending the Constitution and making Americans second-class citizens in the country of their birth.

At least as seen in a Monday preview, Asian American Theater Company’s world premiere staging by co-artistic director Duy Nguyen goes more than 30 minutes over its announced 100-minute running time. When the intermission falls at the 90-minute mark, that should be a tip-off that it’s going to be a long night. The play is split into three parts, and by the end of the first one you’re already ready for an intermission.

The first episode runs from 2025 to 2046, tracing the friendship of American Jimmy Cole and Chinese Zhang Kai from classmates at Harvard to rising political stars and eventually presidents of their respective countries. They hang out together all the time debating the virtues and vices of American culture, contrasted with the Chinese system in only the vaguest terms. Jimmy’s remarks about China could just as easily be from 50 years ago, and nothing Zhang says really lessens that impression. “Well, there’s the yang and the yin,” Zhang says. “Yeah, but no yin for the Yankees,” Jimmy replies. There’s an odd scene where Zhang learns a little something about simple humanity from Jimmy by doing some sort of social work with juvenile delinquent Jojo (Jennifer Vo Le), but it’s not really clear what the point of that is. It’s funny that one recurring theme in their conversations is that Zhang Kai doesn’t want to talk politics, because they never talk about anything else.

Garth Petal’s Jimmy Cole has a force of personality that makes it seem like if he’s hearing you out instead of talking over you, he’s doing it as a personal favor. It doesn’t exactly make him likeable, although he seems generous-hearted enough, but it does give the impression of someone with more alpha male charisma than most could handle. Even when it seems like Zhang Kai does nothing but nag about how screwed up American society is, Wayne Lee exudes appealingly down-to-earth intelligence, with a reserve bordering on depression growing the more responsibility he has, just as Jimmy’s self-confidence doesn’t serve him too well in the long run.

When it finally comes time for Jimmy to sign his country away, it’s with all the teary interpersonal drama of a soap-opera breakup. There’s an odd overemphasis on how failing to surrender the US might screw up Zhang’s career, because it would take an incredible lack of perspective for that to seem like a weighty issue under the circumstances, but in any case the actual transfer of power is presented as almost a formality. China already owns much of the United States and dominates the culture with its pop music and even the language (which dialect isn’t specified).

Before any of that happens, there’s a bit of scene-setting with out-of-work Frank (Tom Lazur) complaining how hard it is to get into the ball cap business and taking China’s rise a little too personally for just some dude in San Francisco. (Listening to this I was picturing a “ball cap” as some kind of boltlike doodad and didn’t realize it referred to baseball caps.) This part only seems to be there to introduce the family that will take center stage in part two, particularly the baby swaddled in his wife’s arms.

That baby grows up to be Samantha, who struggles to make ends meet hawking cigarettes on the street. Whatever system it is that China imposed on the US, it doesn’t seem to involve any guarantee of subsistence, housing or employment. The family can’t scrape together enough money for food or rent, finally forcing Samantha to go into prostitution. At first seeming sluggish as mother Sandra, JanLee Marshall’s understated performance pays off gradually as she goes from simply suggesting that Samantha go to a party and be pleasant to powerful men to giving her detailed tips on how to keep her johns coming back for more. Seeing a mother pimping out her daughter is enough to make you queasy, and that’s what makes it so effective. Erika Salazar nicely embodies Samantha’s descent from a headstrong young woman with big dreams of starting a catering business in China with her unseen boyfriend to a practiced seductress who’s far too comfortable with the cash flow to question her new life.

Meanwhile Lazur plays her shiftless brother Robert, who takes a gardening job armed with nothing but excuses about why he can’t quite do the job in halting English that symbolizes fractured Chinese. He works for Mr. and Mrs. Han, a squabbling couple who can’t conceive a child. There’s no trace of chemistry between them, and Lisa Kang’s Mrs. Han always seems to be either in worrying or nagging mode, so it’s hard to imagine them even trying. Stephen Hu’s Mr. Han has some funny moments in his pleasantly smiling attempts to boss Robert around through the language barrier, and livens up considerably around Samantha in just the way you’d think he might. Petal pops up in an amusing cameo as Christopher, a doctor turned street hustler who has to adopt a broad American cowboy stereotype to turn Chinese tricks.

Set in 2048, the third act centers around Elaine, a former aide to Cole who’s now working for Mrs. Han. In a scene we don’t see, she witnesses Christopher get killed for not giving up his cab for Mrs. Han, and he’s branded a terrorist in an immediate cover-up. Elaine tells the whole story to a reporter who’s clearly more interested in getting into her pants than getting the word out, but she sticks around to make sure he does both. Although shy and awkward with her, Lee lets just enough of journalist Li Dazhao’s inner impatient jerk through to let the audience know he’s not to be trusted, but it takes some suspension of disbelief to accept that Elaine actually thinks he’s just conscientiously following the story. You just have to figure she’s okay with being used. Le gives a strong sense of Elaine’s sharp intelligence, even if it’s hard to fathom why she does things even when she’s telling us what she’s thinking.

This final chapter seems intended to set up some hope for the future, but it also feels less developed than the other sections. As some sort of Chinese official in San Francisco, Mrs. Han is working on some kind of project or report that promises to make Americans’ lives better in the US, but it’s all very vague, and people’s motivations seem to change from line to line. One minute Mrs. Han is furiously calling the cops, and a sentence or two later she’s solicitous and welcoming. Part of the problem with that particular scene is that it’s played very melodramatically, with a lot of head-wagging from Kang.

It’s tempting to wonder if this whole third part—everything after intermission, essentially—could be dropped, but it probably couldn’t: the second act is the strongest part of the piece, but it’s certainly no resolution. The play’s at its best when it’s rooted in how people live from day to day in the post-collapse society. The summary about how they got into this mess drags on too long, despite engaging performances from Petal and Lee to keep us following along. Some background is helpful, of course, but the wider the scope in this piece, the less involving it is. It’s true that the whole idea of the show is pondering what if China invaded America, but at some point the speculative premise has to fall into the background to get back to the lives of just plain folks. It feels like Heller and Nguyen, who developed the story together, are simply trying to do too much in one play—enough so that it’s hard to say exactly where they could narrow their focus because it’s not entirely clear what that focus is.

Beijing, California plays through July 17 at Thick House, 1695 18th St., San Francisco.

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