Chay Yews Master of Science from Boston University may be said to qualify him as a local boy made good. After a successful stint in London, the Singapore born playwright returned to productions by LORT companies all around the United States before he settled in as Resident Artist at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. Now SpeakEasy Stage Company has mounted Yews Boston premiere, a lovely production of his1992 drama, "Porcelain".
Clint E.B.Ramos's set, which seems to encompass the whole of the BCAs little Black Box Theatre, is a three dimensional frame or shadowbox for the varying patterns of white, black, and red projected onto it. The stage is variously a London jail, a white tiled public WC, a flat in Bethal Green, a bar, garden, an interrogation room. The five actors who play all the parts shift from choral abstractions who intone poetry or invective to quick sketches, silhouettes or caricatures really, who fill in the narrative's social background, and then segue into rounded human characters who interact with the central figure. John Lee is a 19-year-old Asian homosexual who was looking for love in all the wrong places. Lee was scheduled to go off to University, but instead the young man will be in jail or an insane asylum for the rest of his life. Lee pumped six bullets into his jilting lover Will, in the underground toilet at Bethal Green. The toilet where the shooting takes place is the one where the pair had picked each other up a few short weeks before in the ritual of anonymous sex the British call cottaging. This much is made clear in the first few minutes.
What unfolds subsequently is a whydunnit, with the protagonist Lee clinging to inscrutability and a criminal psychologist working -- presumably on behalf of the audience, since there is plenty of evidence to convict the young man without a confession -- to crack the perpetrator's cool facade and reveal the roots of the crime. "Porcelain" -- the title refers to the protagonist's fragility and and fusion of different elements that has gone into his making --- is well crafted in the fluid theatrical style perfected by British alternative theatres, affording the four supporting actors called Voices 1,2, 3,& 4" plenty of opportunity to do rapid-fire transitions between radically different roles with an array of accents and social attitudes, and yet never quite fall into the detachment of satire. The actors have serious emotional stuff to do, too -- moments to reveal inner turmoil, sexual ecstasy, tenderness. Under the sensitive direction of Steve Maler, all these shifts are both precise and credible. This is no small feat, because script and production are loaded with enough heavy symbolism to sink the Titanic. Littering Lee's jail cell and spilling out over the stage are hundreds of blood-red origami wish cranes. Blood spatters are washed over the floor and walls by John Malinowskis projected light. Lee's six shots at close range -- chest, head, shoulder, groin-- are represented by the cast repeating, severally, several times, Bang. Add Chinese firecrackers, spent and empty, Rorschach blots, red poppies, and an interminable Aesopean fable about a crow who deserts the crows tree and flies over to try to fit in with a flock of sparrows. Last but by no means least, there is the Extended Opera Metaphor, accompanied by referential arias -- not just Madame Butterfly, but Carmen, too!
All this mountain of theatrical labor brings forth -- not much. Except for two graphic descriptions of sexual encounter the writing is short on specifics. People do and say things that sound like approximations, like what any reader of newspapers or watcher of television might imagine such types would do or say in the circumstances. All the exotic trappings do not distinguish Lee's adolescent crime of passion from any other.
This isn't the fault of the cast, who bring individual shadings to each of their stereotypical roles. John Lee is played with febrile dignity by Enoch Chan, currently a junior at Yews alma mater, Boston University. Bill Mavis is solid and plausible as a manipulative psychologist, Dr. Jack Worthing. Bill Mootos is suitably repulsive as an in-your-face Channel Four journalist who caters to the public's lowest common denominator. John Kuntz, whose versatility is legendary hereabouts, does the most doubling, and is most impressive as Lee's devastated immigrant father. Augustus Kelly may be too sympathetic as the straight casual sex partner Will Hope, who rejects Lee when an intimacy with the effete young Asian threatens threatens his "normal, masculine" self image. Kelly's Hope is complex and conflicted, and far too sensitive to deserve to be blown away by a narcissistic kid who doesn't even come to understand that what he has done is a terrible, irrevocable, crime. (At the end, the self-deluded Lee posits that his ex-lover isn't really dead, because he is alive in me.) Good as Malers actors are individually, as an ensemble they are even better. They build Yews world and inhabit it, and while they are performing it is possible for an audience to accept that world as real. It is only on reflection that its insubstantiality is revealed. Yew is a young writer, and "Porcelain" is an early play, conceived as a film while he was still a student at BU. That Porcelain is a triumph of form over content, its blood stage blood and not the painful human kind, isn't necessarily a bad omen for Yew's future as an artist. Many a poet has learned to construct imaginary gardens first, and not found real toads to put in them until life has kicked him around the block a few times.