September 17, 2004




A skeleton of a play


East West Players' production of Cherylene Lee's 'Mixed Messages' is slick, but the play's racial and cultural identity themes need fleshing out.


by Rob Kendt

Special to The Times


A young man holds a skull centerstage and, gazing into its hollow eyes, contemplates his place in the cosmos.


This isn't "Hamlet," not by a long shot, but Cherylene Lee's schematic new problem play "Mixed Messages," in a slick but silly world-premiere production at East West Players.


The skull belongs to La Brea Woman, that lovable staple of L.A.'s Page Museum whose battered, 9,000-year-old bones, trawled from the tar pits in 1914, have invited much speculation than the Black Dahlia murder case. The young man is Jake Ramirez (Luis Villalta), whose fresh-faced poise belies that he's got some major abandonment issues, and that he's chosen to process them in the time-honored American way: litigation.


He believes, as many experts do, that La Brea Woman was a Chumash Indian, and he's come calling at the museum to collect her remains and give them proper burial rites. That he himself is but one-sixteenth Chumash--and from a clan not recognized by the state's official Chumash Nation--isn't the point. For him it's a matter of "cultural conscience."


This doesn't fly with Wai Lin-Lawson (Mia Riverton), a young anthropologist with a tendency for nervous chatter. Though she's only at the museum to tidy up her late mentor's office, she soon takes up the case in favor of La Brea Woman as a valid scientific specimen.


And so the superstition-versus-science games begin in a series of exchanges between Jake and Wai that awkwardly combine flirtation and pedantry.


"That's evolution!" Wai cries. "That's desecration!" Jake retorts. That's bad dialogue, I rejoin.


Villalta labors nobly to make his trumped-up character work, while the superficial Riverton doesn't seem to have the chops to make the attempt.


Indeed, we begin to see what Lee's show might have been only when these two babes in the anthropological woods interact with a gallery of supporting players.


Wai's glamorous Chinese-American mother (Natsuko Ohama) is a divorcee who dismisses her daughter's obsession with the past, both professional and personal, with a tart one-liner: "Looking back. . . makes my neck wrinkle." Her bookish father (Walter Beery), meanwhile, is a self-described "retired, ineffectual WASP," with a properly English aversion for confrontation and a bottomlessly sweet nature.


Lacking parents of his own, Jake turns first to a well-heeled Chumash Councilman (Miguel Najera), who wears both his bolo tie and his power with convincing gravitas, and who memorably justifies his tribe's profitable casino business with reference to a Chumash fable in which the sun gambles with a coyote. Then Jake turns to a personal property lawyer (Lisa Tharps), who helpfully clarifies a few things for him.


"It's not about money," he insists. "Do see what I mean?"


"I see pro bono work," she replies.


Director Jon Lawrence Rivera deftly moves these scenes along across John Binkley's lovely set, and even manages to pull off a fanciful cross-cut sequence in which these four elders appear as animated fossils in the museum.


But Rivera can't do a thing with the mounting absurdity of Jake's and Wai's interactions, which eventually solve the La Brea Woman mystery by using a kind of pop-forensic "profiling" that would be far-fetched on "CSI."


Playwright Lee was reportedly inspired by 2000 Census data showing that 20% of Angelenos identify themselves by multiple ethnicities. While we hear a cacophony of recorded testimonials by young people about their mixed heritages over scene changes, and while Wai's own biracial background ostensibly figures into her passion for the distant past, Lee's play never connects with race as it's lived today, in its current muddle of shopworn identity politics and post-affirmative-action indeterminacy.


There's a lot to say about the way racial and cultural categories, despite their demonstrable mutability, stubbornly persist. But a dramatist can't simply refer to these issues, as if in footnotes. Lee just hasn't put enough flesh and blood on these bones.


"Mixed Messages," East West Players at the David Henry Hwang Theatre, 120 Judge John Aiso St., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays (no Saturday matinee on Sept. 18). Ends Oct. 10. $28 to $33. (213) 625-7000 x20. Running time: 2 hours.