Written by Edward Sakamoto; Directed by Ron Nakahara
Produced by Pan Asian Repertory Theatre
Off Broadway, New Play
Runs through 4.27.14
Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street
by Jack Smart on 4.11.14
Viet Vo, Kiyo Takami and Bobby Foley in Fishing for Wives. Photo by Daniel DeMello.
BOTTOM LINE: A sincere but somewhat blatant comedy set in vintage Hawaii which intermittently explores the complications and implications of immigration.
There's something simultaneously refreshing and bizarre about Fishing for Wives, the New York premiere of Edward Sakamoto's comedy about a pair of fishermen in 1913 Hawaii. It's a folksy and evocative night at the theater, and the ambiance is reminiscent of a sepia-toned Hawaiian sunset. But there's no denying the feeling that it's meant for a much younger audience on a much less formal stage. Though geared towards middle-schoolers both in dialogue and plot, this production from Pan Asian Repertory Theatre is grounded in enough historical detail to exude a sense of tropical authenticity not unwelcome on 42nd Street.
Theatregoers who crave subtelty and wit in their comedy, however, may not be hooked by Fishing for Wives. But Sakamoto provides keen insight into Hawaii's beginnings as the world's most diverse melting pot, as well as the concept of Japanese picture brides, the OkCupid of 1913. When the lonely and oafish Nishi (Viet Vo) sends for such a bride by mailing a photo of his handsome friend Aoki (Bobby Foley) instead, the inevitable shenanigans of a romance triangle ensue. An island-bound succession of potential brides for Aoki further complicates matters in what is otherwise a slow, innocuous melodrama.
It is helped along by director Ron Nakahara's production, which strives for historical and cultural immersion. Kimonos are worn with the utmost care, until they are traded for floral Hawaiian dresses. Characters remove and put on their sandals constantly -- a running gag by theatrical standards, but here more of a dutiful nod to an island tradition that continues to this day. With support from Ian Wehrle's ocean sounds and Marie Yokoyama's sporadically dazzling lighting, there are moments when those pristine white sands don't seems so far away. If you're looking for a beachy vibe at the end of this long winter, you could do worse than Aoki and Nishi's vintage paradise.
Foley and Vo have an easy rapport that softens the edge of their incredibly wooden dialogue. When Sakamoto tosses an on-the-nose metaphor into the fishermen's chitchat -- "You can't love a frozen fish!" remarks Aoki of Nishi's bride (Kiyo Takami) -- the actors prevent it from landing with a thud. Foley infuses his performance with moments of genuine ache; after a tragic twist in the second act, Aoki's reaction is rendered touchingly in capable hands.
Subtlety proves rather more difficult for the story's four female characters, who are, as the title suggests, little more than props in this facile farce. Each is introduced on a seasick voyage across the Pacific, and each presents a different archetype of traditional femininity: the jealous schemer, the ingénue, the homebody. It's surprising, then, to watch the second act veer tantalizingly into an earnest inversion of gender norms. Ihara (Akiko Hiroshima) arrives to not only swing a sword and dance kabuki, but also to seduce Nishi's wife, casually instigating a threesome.
But when Ihara strides off to shock more people with her disgraceful dominance, it becomes clear Fishing for Wives is ultimately an allegory for the American immigrant. Aoki settles on a doting bride (Allison Hiroto) who promises prosperity, ambition, and lots of children, while a reborn Nishi whisks his wife away to America. What this story captures, amidst all its obvious comedy and occasional glimmers of cultural insight, is the very process of assimilation, and all the hope inherent in starting anew. I left the theatre thinking, how many of our ancestors had similar dreams?
(Fishing for Wives plays at the Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street, through April 27, 2014. Performances are Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:30PM; Saturdays at 2:30PM and 7:30PM; and Sundays at 2:30PM. Regularly priced tickets are $51.25 and are available at telecharge.com or by calling 212-239-6200. For more show info visit panasianrep.org.)