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what you are now

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - March 17, 2022

Pisay Pao, Sonnie Brown, and Robert Lee Leng
Photo by Jeremy Daniel
Playwright Sam Chanse describes her body of work as "deep dives into unfigureoutables, landing in unresolved, ambiguous places." But don't be put off by what sounds to be a daunting challenge. Her new play, what you are now, turns out to be quite "figureoutable," provided you are willing to allow its time-shifting scenes to unfold in accordance with their own sequence and logic.

Opening tonight as the first live, in-person production by the Ensemble Studio Theatre since the pandemic shut-down, what you are now might be thought of as a meta-memory play. We are pulled into the memories of a driven-to-succeed young research scientist who is striving to find the magic bullet that will somehow erase, or at least ease, her mother's traumatic memories of the chaotic violence that marked her life in 1970s Cambodia before she was able to flee to America with her young son and unborn daughter.

It is that daughter, Pia (Pisay Pao), who is the researcher, fascinated with the brain's capacity to link the cognitive with the emotional in order to create seemingly unbreakable long-term memories that shape who we are and how we act. But while she sees herself as being responsible for "fixing" her mother, Chantrea (Sonnie Brown, thrillingly inscrutable), Pia never recognizes her own trauma that comes from failing to live up to an unreachable level of perfection she imagines her undemonstrative mother expects of her.

While it is the difficult mother-daughter relationship that lies at the core of the play, there are three other significant characters. One is Pia's laid-back brother Darany (Robert Lee Leng), older by a few years but, at least in Pia's eyes, another responsibility for her to take on. They are joined by Siobhan (Emma Kikue), racially mixed of Cambodian and Irish-American parents, who becomes involved with Darany and who also urges the recalcitrant Chantrea to publicly speak about her past. And, finally, there is Evan (Curran Connor), who is white. Evan is friendly and outgoing, and a calming and romantic presence in Pia's life.

Looking at the make-up of the play's characters, you can rightly guess that there is a great deal of complexity being presented in just about 90 minutes. Remarkably, the playwright and director Steve Cosson are able to find the time and space to explore each relationship and interaction, so that (almost) nothing seems forced. The one exception is a plot strand involving one person's status as an undocumented immigrant, something that interferes with the delicate balance in place and which might better be explored in a separate play of its own.

Otherwise, what holds the threads together is the time-shifting itself, which establishes delineated scenes with mostly two-person interactions going on at any time. Yes, we are obliged to reassemble the pieces into a logically sequential order, but patient attention makes this a manageable and worthwhile task, especially with the strong performances all around to provide clarity.

Sam Chanse's what you are now is a presentation of the Ensemble Studio Theatre, The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and The Civilians and is being performed at EST's Curt Dempster Theatre. The collaborative and supportive efforts of all of these contribute to an intriguing exploration of relationships within a framework of a serious consideration of the human mind.

what you are now
Through April 3, 2022
Ensemble Studio Theatre, Curt Dempster Theatre, 545 West 52nd Street, New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: