Is it just that I was a kid excited to be putting my homework off, or were 80s sitcoms like The Cosby Show, Family Ties, and Roseanne actually good shows, sometimes handling serious themes with substance and gravity despite the presence of goofy supporting characters like Skippy the neighbor and little Rudy’s misogynist boyfriend Bud? The question is relevant to this review because if the answer is yes, it means that there might have been a way for Mu Performing Arts’ Cowboy Versus Samurai to succeed.
I’ve seen many productions in the Guthrie Theater’s Dowling Studio, but never has the crowd there sounded so much like a studio audience. In the comic first half of Cowboy Versus Samurai, the regular laugh lines hit with perfectly-timed booms of chortling, a live laugh track entirely appropriate to the play’s glossy sitcom-style humor. In the second half, though, the booms turn to bust as the comedy gives way to a hackneyed romance between the two central characters, culminating in a climax that takes the production’s final seconds straight from a nice moment of visual invention to a cheesy conclusion that moves the show from sitcom territory into the terrain of the telenovela.
|cowboy versus samurai, presented through november 28 at the guthrie theater. for tickets ($18-$30) and information, see guthrietheater.org.|
Playwright Michael Golamco’s script is, as director Randy Reyes notes in the program, “a romantic comedy loosely based on the Cyrano de Bergerac tale.” Travis (Kurt Kwan) and Chester (Sherwin Resurreccion) are the only two Asian-Americans in the town of Breakneck, Wyoming (pop. 1,000), until the arrival of Korean-American schoolteacher Veronica (Sun Mee Chomet). Both men set their sights on her, but she informs Travis that she’s only attracted to non-Asian men, so Travis feeds his maudlin romantic essays (how is love like a pony in a burning barn? um, let me count the ways) to his white friend Del (John Catron), who uses them to win Veronica’s heart…temporarily, at least.
Infusing Cyrano with contemporary issues of race is an interesting premise, and the most exciting aspect of the show is the way Golamco whips Asian-American stereotypes around like smashing plates. Chester is a militant pro-Asian who believes that an Asian man should mate only with Asian women so he can properly “reproduce himself,” and Travis plays the straight man who pops all of Chester’s ridiculous balloons. Resurreccion attacks his role with madcap conviction, and his scenes are by far the show’s best—watch for his reaction when Travis informs him of Veronica’s non-Asian preference.
Catron also has some good moments, though his character makes less sense: Golamco makes him a doofus who can’t tell the difference between China and Japan, but also requires him to occasionally spout Yoda-like insights into Travis’s character. The reason I began this review with the sitcom question is that both Chester and Del are flown in from the land of Skippy, of clownish supporting characters who get funny schtick but who are so dense that it’s hard to believe they can successfully feed and clothe themselves.
Successfully swinging from broad clowning to emotional realism is possible in skilled hands, but it doesn’t happen here. The scenes that Chomet and Kwan share feel painfully forced; anyone who saw the fluid chemistry between Rachel Finch and Andrew Sass in Anon‘s making-conversation-and-sliding-closer-on-the-couch-scene will want to look away during the deliberate and awkward parallel scene in Cowboy Versus Samurai. In the play’s second half, Reyes encourages long thoughtful silences that might in another play encourage contemplation of the characters and themes, but the progress of this plot is so predictable that the pauses just feel like being stuck in traffic while you’re waiting to get to a predetermined destination.
Despite its seeming sophistication on questions of race, the script can be strangly glib on that central topic. Just as the play fails to successfully integrate clownish humor with realistic character development, Golamco’s agenda of broadly provocative stereotype-mocking doesn’t always jive with his aspiration to communicate something genuinely informative about what it might be like to be one of two Asian-Americans in a rural Wyoming community. Veronica complains about being stared at, but Travis shrugs off having a yellow-painted brick thrown through his window. (Possibly, we understand, the brick was thrown by the other Asian guy in town.)
In the show’s strangest and least funny moment, Chester appears in a Klan hood, on his way to do “research.” Really? There’s an active KKK branch in this town of 1,000? But for the most part, things are okay there for the three Asian-Americans? Except sometimes you get bricks thrown through your window? But overall, Travis really likes it there, and becomes best friends with the guy who greeted him by shouting, “Hey, Jap, go back to China”? The play’s failure to decide whether it exists in the realm of broad parody or in the real world undercuts its usefulness, slices its tension, and leaves us with many amusing moments detached from any meaningful context.