Time Out New York / Issue 578: October 26–November 1, 2006
West End Theatre. By Philip Kan Gotanda. Dir. Seret Scott. With Dian Kobayashi, James Fonteno.
There’s material for several plays, or at least for several episodes of Wife Swap, buried between the jagged lines of Yohen, Philip Kan Gotanda’s oddly shaped, unsatisfying play about a middle-aged marriage on the rocks. James (Fonteno) is a retired GI who’s been lingering at home far more than suits Sumi (Kobayashi), a long-suffering secretary who’s going back to school to become an art teacher. So she banishes him to a friend’s flat and asks him to woo her again—a starting-over gambit that only dredges up some big, unresolved issues between them.
If the elephant in the room is race (James is black, Sumi Japanese), Gotanda’s characters only brush isolated aspects of it, like the blind man of the fable, until its crushing weight comes down in the play’s impassioned but confused ending. Until that point, Gotanda’s writing veers uneasily between nostalgia, as the spouses recall key moments in their cross-cultural courtship, and tentative soul-searching, as James returns to his avocation of boxing and Sumi to pottery (yohen is a term for pots distorted and discolored distinctively by the kiln).
Under director Seret Scott, each actor has some convincingly raw, revelatory moments. But apart from flickers of laughing chemistry between the strapping Fonteno, who suggests a black Sean Connery, and the petite, put-together Kobayashi, this is not an ideal match. That, of course, is partly Gotanda’s point, but by itself disharmony hardly makes for good drama. — Rob Kendt