In the service of confronting anti-Asian racism and the bias against mental illness, Catch as Catch Can by Mia Chung, directed by Daniel Aukin widely misses. The one-act play at Playwrights Horizons, reignited from a run at The New Ohio Theatre in 2018 complicates structurally and thematically. Unfortunately, the lack of forthright presentation skews the power of the messages and leaves one questioning the characterizations. Instead, one should be questioning the impact of parental conditioning on learned behavior.
Our conditioning is how we abide by family roles, gender, ethnic biases, unless we choose to overcome them. Conditioning importantly impacts our psychological stability. This theme, if clearly presented by the playwright is prescient for us today. However, much was lost in the presentation of this production at Playwrights Horizons until November 20th.
Three actors fluidly portray six roles which is easy enough. The roles they illuminate are of different ages and genders and there’s the rub. Jon Norman Schneider and Rob Yang at the top of the very long one-act (1 hour 50 minutes), portray mothers Roberta Lavecchia and Theresa Phelan. In subsequent scenes they play their sons Robbie Lavecchia and Tim Phelan. Cindy Cheung portrays father Lon Lavecchia and daughter Daniela Lavecchia.
What is the point of the actors portraying characters who are cross-gender, cross ages while they, too, belie the ethnicity of their characters (Italian and Irish)? In watching Cindy Cheung portray father Lon Lavecchia, and daughter Daniela Lavecchia, we see how the character has been influenced by her father’s parenting. In watching Jon Norman Schneider portray mother Roberta Lavecchia and son Robbie Lavecchia, we understand the mother’s influence on her son. Likewise, as we watch Rob Yang portray mother Theresa Phelan and son Tim Phelan, we understand how Tim’s nature and behaviors are conditioned and influenced by his mother Theresa. Wouldn’t the dialogue reveal this without all the crosses to bear?
It took me about 3 minutes to understand that the effeminate mannerisms and strained voices of Jon Norman Schneider as Roberta and Rob Yang as Theresa were stylized to convey the impact of these women on their children. This becomes clearer when we later see the doubling up portrayals of the actors playing the sons, as “chips off the old maternal block.”
The first scene between the two mothers sitting and having tea played more for humor than for authenticity. However, I found myself forced to listen acutely to the dialogue to understand that neighbors Roberta and Theresa are concerned about their sons and that is a point of mutual shared interest. Their sons have been with Korean American women. Roberta is comfortable enough not to disguise her bias against son Robbie’s wife, who he divorced two years prior. On the other hand, Theresa is concerned that her son Tim is going to be engaged to a very pretty Koren American woman who looks “like a doll” and has small hands. We discover later that Tim who has severe emotional issues has been lying to his mother about this woman, perhaps to reassure her he is “normal,” for she can’t accept another way for him to be.
The playwright has sought to stylize the entire foray into subjects which perhaps should be dealt with honestly rather than to obscure them. However, even in neighborly relationships and in families, so much occurs sub rosa. In all human relationships behavior is obscured. And sometimes we learn more from what is not said than what is. That is one message of the play, it would seem, as an outcropping of the playwright’s intentional doubling and mixing of ages and genders and also including two Asian actors. The question remains, does the mixing of genders, ages and ethnicities elucidate or befuddle? And to what extent does confusion enhance one’s passion in expressing one’s message?
Stripping away the artificial and stylized constructs, the authentic action which is most on point is the preparation for the family reunion. where we have already seen where the food and last names identify ethnicity for the Italian Lavecchias and Irish Phelans. We become engaged as the actors hang the Christmas lights, get the chaffing dishes and organize for the large buffet, that is sprinkled with humor, including the thought that a friend’s vegan teenager will not be eating Mrs. Lavecchia’s wonderful meatballs and sausages. The scene is in the congeniality of the season until a monkey wrench is thrown in when Tim and Daniela go shopping to pick up additional supplies. Tim kisses Daniela, truths are revealed. The moment is incredibly awkward and sets us up for Tim’s later emotional and psychological breakdown. Cheung and Yang do a bang-up job with this scene as a lead in to the strongest part of the play, Tim’s illness.
The last part of the one-act is the clearest. Tim’s profound depression which he’s been hiding from his mother is acute. Friends also miss it and can really do little to help. In the conversation he has with his mother that moves from response to comment, Yang’s portrayal of mother and son is superb and differentiated. Theresa’s unemotional delivery segues into Tim’s unemotional, opaque monotone that reveals his desolate state. Thus, when Cheung’s Daniela explains that she finds he tried to hang himself in their house where he was staying, we are not surprised. Nor are we surprised at Daniela’s expressed hatred for Theresa who can’t acknowledge what is happening to her son. We have seen Tim’s debilitating depression in action with his mother who doesn’t understand her son.
The subsequent hospital scene where Yang’s Tim acts out against being there to his final scene with Robbie convey the misery and hopelessness of his condition. Yang and Schneider do a wonderful job at this juncture. From benign beginning between the almost silly Theresa and Roberta to the conclusion, Tim’s severe illness finally emerges. We note that the events and conversations have led up to this point as merely the tip of the iceberg below which Tim’s state looms to crash into his mother. He can no longer front with her and they become alienated. Theresa rejects his mental state and perhaps as a distraction appears more concerned about herself. However, Robbie is accepting and loving to Tim. We would like to believe he will be there for him. Yet, in a fade to black the outcome is uncertain, as is with mental illness where the patient doesn’t believe in the efficacy of his own survival.
With a different directorial approach, the themes might have been brought to bear more powerfully. Unfortunately, with this iteration, there is much that remained muddled. One wonders how the dialogue would stand up if the six characters were not in search of delineated roles melting into a mix of ages and genders. Possibly, if performances were less stylized with speech patterns and mannerisms forcing for laughs, the results would have been more dynamic. Indeed, the parts of the production that were authentic and acted with spot-on immediacy (minus exposition), were standouts. Kudos to the three actors in those sections.
Kudos to the creative team that effected the variety of setting changes including the hospital scene. Likewise, to the fine organization of props and setting for the Christmas celebration. The team includes Matt Saunders (scenic design), Enver Chakartash (costume design), Marika Kent (lighting design), Bray Poor (sound design).