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Out of Time

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - March 1, 2022

Page Leong
Photo by Joan Marcus
Staged monologues are terribly tricky forms, the theatrical equivalent of short stories. If everything does not fall exactly into place, they risk coming off as self-aggrandizing ego-trips, or perhaps as unrelenting confessionals in which the audience pays for the privilege of being surrogate psychotherapists. To be truly effective, the writing and the performances must be thoroughly gripping, for no matter their length, they are plays after all.

Boldly joining this realm is Out of Time, a presentation of the National Asian American Theater Company (NAATCO) opening tonight at the Public Theater as a showcase for not one, not two, but five separate pieces. Each monologue has been written by an Asian American playwright and all five are being performed by Asian American actors, purposely selected from among those over the age of 60.

A thread of a theme begins to emerge with the first and best of the quintet of well-acted though frequently nebulous and only marginally connected monologues. In My Documentary by playwright Anna Ouyang Moench, actress Page Leong appears downstage, dressed all in black, sits, and starts talking about the pleasure she derives from knitting. "I make one sweater every three years," she tells us. "I don't make them for other people. I don't do handmade gifts." This doesn't sound like much to hang a play on, but in the hands of a sterling writer and a gifted actor, this opening story and what follows absolutely draw you in. The unnamed character is a gifted raconteur, and as the monologue unfolds, you will begin to understand why she is sharing these small episodes of her life with such practiced assuredness, until everything starts, metaphorically speaking, to unravel.

We have our overall connection, then, a loose-knit theme of isolation during the pandemic, of the physical and mental impact of aging, and of the inevitable losses of loved ones, friends, and even self. This theme carries on in various permutations throughout the evening. Unfortunately, however, while the other four monologues are presented by talented and engaging actors, the monologues themselves do not live up to that first one.

There are pieces that amuse but ultimately puzzle, like Mia Chung's Ball in the Air, performed by NAATCO co-founder Mia Katigbak, who enters playing a game of paddle ball and proceeds to lose herself in a tale of collapsing relationships and perhaps of a collapsing mind. Wrapping things up prior to an intermission is a piece by Jaclyn Backhaus called Black Market Caviar, in which actress Rita Wolf appears projected onto a screen (though we can see her performing for the camera behind the gauzy curtain) and relates a narrative that gives the impression she is making this tape for a family member, a cautionary story about a genetic predisposition to cancer.

Following the intermission, we have Naomi Iizuka's Japanese Folk Song, a ghost story presented with gentle charm by Glenn Kubota, and Sam Chanse's Disturbance Specialist, with Natsuko Ohama as a once-popular, now "problematic" novelist making a speech before a group of disgruntled students at her alma mater. As with most of the other monologues, this one starts out strong but then gets lost in the brambles of confusion, so that, with the exception of the very first piece, the whole evening comes off as less of a fully realized collection than an exercise in the art of the monologue. Despite gathering some very fine actors, director Les Waters, who is credited as well with conceiving the evening, has not found a way to connect the dots.

Out of Time
Through March 13, 2022
National Asian American Theater Company
The Public Theater, Martinson Theater, 425 Lafayette Street (at Astor Place)New York NY
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