DTLA - An irony of TV is that characters rarely do one thing that most real people do for hours each day — watch TV. That’s because it’s incredibly boring to see portrayed.
In the 21st century, that no-TV rule has expanded to include social media. Who wants to watch actors stare down at their phones when it’s annoying enough in real life?
Playwright Nathan Ramos disregards that unwritten edict, and it turns out to be a positive choice — one of the few — in As We Babble On. The mostly unsurprising dramedy, which closes the 52nd season of East West Players, contains few jokes that land solidly and is filled with forced dialogue that is much more tell than show.
Staged with some creative touches by director Alison M. De La Cruz, but never quite clicking as a cohesive story, As We Babble On runs through June 24 at Little Tokyo’s David Henry Hwang Theatre.
The play, which changed its program-listed running time from two hours and 15 minutes with intermission to 100 minutes without a break (rarely a good sign), won EWP’s “2042: See Change” playwriting competition. Perhaps it caught the judges’ attention because its primary focus is on urban, hip 20-somethings trying to eke out creative careers while dealing with relationship and societal issues.
It’s a given that there should be more plays to draw younger people to the theater, and a reliable method to achieve this is by creating works that reflect their generation. Ramos appears to be doing that by following the rule of “write what you know.” The problem is, he crams too much of what he knows into one story, while using a numbing amount of set-ups and punch lines that follow the staccato rhythm of traditional sitcoms.
The first scene shows promise. Sheila (Jiavani Linayao) is doing her popular live-streaming show, which involves erotic baking (one follower pays her to eat her homemade cookies slowly). She wants to be a famous dessert maker and is a finalist to have her latest cookie served at an upscale New York bakery.
Her show, and the fun for the audience, is interrupted by her roommate of five years, Benji (Will Choi), a depressive, moody cartoonist who just quit his job at a comic book publishing house because he believes their racist attitudes are why he didn’t get a promotion to a major superhero title. The roomies are close and call themselves the gay twins.
Benji opts to launch a Kickstarter-style page to fund a self-published comic book and he uses Babble (think Snapchat) to promote it.
Enter Benji’s sister Laura (Jaime Schwarz), who works for a BuzzFeed-esque site but wants to be a serious writer. She reveals plans for a date with Orson (Bobby Foley), a famous young billionaire who also writes but is known more as the heir of a high-tech empire. The last character is Vish (Sachin Bhatt), an up-and-coming tech entrepreneur who Benji broke up with a year earlier.
The characters are connected by the feeling that they don’t belong, in part because most of them are of more than one ethnic or racial heritage. Also, they are joined by their nearly incessant use of Babble, as well as frequent texting and posting of selfies.
De La Cruz, along with production designer Sheiva Khalily and scene designer Tesshi Nakagawa, keep the phone use from being dull by using projections on several screens that outline the stage; these deliver the messages and photos being sent. It’s a clever choice that provides a few decent sight gags.
Ramos’ jokes, however, generally try too hard, and his characters spend more time making declarations about being unhappy or misunderstood than actually developing them through interaction. It doesn’t help that the show’s anchor is Benji, whose story isn’t revealed enough to be compelling, and Choi’s performance is flat.
The play’s lifeline is Linayao, as Sheila, whose solid timing and strong physical comedy elevates the material.
Focusing on Sheila, or more on one of the relationships, would allow Ramos to delve deeper into the issues he wants to address, instead of simply scratching the surface. Only in the final scene does he let his characters discover a natural flow, which allows the comedy and emotion to feel real and organic.
Despite this misstep, EWP choosing to go with an untested and young playwright to follow the massive undertakings of Soft Power (a co-production at the Ahmanson Theatre) and Allegiance (starring George Takei) proves the company remains forward thinking and steadfast in its search for new talent. Perhaps with a few more titles under his belt, Ramos may someday join the ranks of the many celebrated writers who have found their voice at the landmark company.
As We Babble On runs through June 24 at 120 Judge John Aiso St., (213) 625-7000 or eastwestplayers.org.
© Los Angeles Downtown News 2018