Kira Sternbach and Kris Kling.
BOTTOM LINE: Anime meets anomie in this brilliantly written, staged, and performed ensemble piece, which reveals in hyper-real language and choreographic clarity the inner workings of Japan's "lost generation."
In Enjoy, by Toshiki Okada, an ensemble of ten accomplished young actors play a gaggle of part-timers at a Manga Cafe, which is something like a cross between a video and comic book store, a Starbucks, and a truck-stop. At any rate, it is not a high prestige job. The workers, all of them college-educated, self-conscious, and with too much time to think, live out their loves, break-ups, rivalries, and moral dilemmas in a state that might best be described as intensely active inaction. All their thoughts and impulses turn inward, twisting in on themselves until they reach an intricately convoluted tension. The result is that almost nothing is ever said or done, and if it is, it is often done indirectly.
The genius of this production is that the actors and director Dan Rothenberg have made this total inaction absolutely compelling to watch. The character portrayals are extremely finely-wrought and filled with more fascinating behavioral minutiae than almost anything else I' ve seen on stage or screen. On an empty stage (the grey linoleum-lined breakroom at the Manga cafe also doubles as purgatory), the action takes place in the pulling of a sweatshirt string, a glance upwards, a step backwards. Although the whole cast is truly awesome, there are a few standouts, including Frank Harts as the man crossing over into the nether-regions of 30, Jessica Almasy as the teddy bear wielding girlfriend of one of the cafe workers, and Kira Sternbach, who, with giant wide-set eyes that make her look like a Japanese anime character, plays the passive, much-desired ingenue who somehow manages to assert her self-will.
Enjoy is, at its core, about mortality. At its center is a trio of part-timers who have all passed the age of 30. They are something of pariahs to the other workers who, at the ages of 26 or 27, are all light years away from hitting that dreaded milestone. Okada lucidly captures the sense of immortality inherent in youth, and the impact of crossing that line in the sand. In an uncomfortable yet hilarious solo scene, Frank Harts (who played George in the recent Broadway revival of A Raisin in the Sun with P. Diddy) faces a video camera, making a "video will." As he clings to a box of Camels for dear life, he tries to express his terror and existential hopelessness at turning 30. Although he makes no indication that he is going to commit suicide, the act of making the will seems to indicate that he can't conceive of continuing to live.
The sensibility of Enjoy is quintessentially Japanese, and will seem familiar to those who have read Japanese novelists that have become popular in the U.S., like Haruki Murakami and Banana Yoshimoto. Although it maintains its otherness, the beautiful translation by Aya Ogawa makes effective use of American colloquialisms and rings utterly true. As a member of the slacker generation who left college during the recession in the early 90s, I could easily relate to this piece. My generation was let off fairly easily- the tech boom solved our problems. But I wonder if the newest generation of college-grads, being dumped out of college into an economy that has lost 8 million jobs, might have an experience very similar to that of Japan's lost generation. Okada captures perfectly the effects of being overly-civilized in a post-modern civilization that essentially has no use for you. What should you do with intelligence, vitality, and desire when you have no outlet for it, except to turn it in on itself, in on itself, in on itself.
Produced by The Play Company as the inaugural production of their Universal Voices Translation Program, and in association with the Japan Society, Enjoy is the first piece of Okada's that has been translated into English. Enjoy is also the American premiere for Okada, a young playwright renowned in Japan as the voice of his generation. I am sure Enjoy won't be his last entry onto the American scene- he is definitely a playwright to watch.
(Enjoy plays at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, through April 25, 2010. Performances are Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:15pm, Thursday and Friday at 8:15pm, Saturday at 2:15pm and 8:15pm, and Sunday at 3:15pm. Tickets are $35 ($24.50 for 59E59 members) and are available at ticketcentral.com. For more information visit 59e59.org, or call 212.398.2977.)