James Saito and Peter Kim in a scene from American Hwangap. Photo by Matt Zugale.
BOTTOM LINE: A relatable, comedic, drama about an American family looking to be one again.
Every family's got one. One relative. One event. One circumstance. One thing (or some things) that makes it tick and makes it both unique and utterly normal at the same time. In American Hwangap, new playwright Lloyd Suh illustrates the dramas of a typical American family through a specifically Korean celebration but creates a story that everyone can identify with. This production of American Hwangap, produced by Obie-award-winning companies, The Play Company and Ma-Yi Theater Company, is simple and touching with a sense of humor.
The play centers around the return of an absent father on his Hwangap. Hwangap is the Korean expression used to recognize one's 60th birthday. Before the birth of modern medicine, not many people lived to see their 60th birthday so it is a celebration of a long life. It also marks the end of the zodiac, completing the circle of one's life and the rebirth of another life within one's life. For Min Suk Chun (James Saito) it is a chance to begin his life again, with his family in America. Min Suk left his wife and three children in suburban Texas fifteen years ago to go back to Korea, something that has deeply affected his wife and children in very different ways. His homecoming is bittersweet as are his relationships with his family members.
A soft accent and subtle moments lost in translation abound but doesn't overpower this story. Saito is honest, never gimmicky, in his portrayal of the returned immigrant. He has a charming way of inserting profundity to the simplest of observations. During along overdue father/son moment with his youngest, Ralph (Peter Kim), Min Suk, referring to a video game that Ralph broke in anger earlier, shares "I think these objects have it coming to them." Saito's comedic timing is perfect and he delivers moments like this with such simplicity and honesty that one is sure that Suh has hidden pearls of wisdom somewhere in there.
Suh's voice is modernly poetic, colloquial, and humorous. Within exchanges of dialogue that seem light an inconsequential he hides some of life's deepest stuff. In one particular poem about a puppy which Ralph, a 29-year-old, slightly imbalanced, science fiction poet still living in his mother's basement, reads from his journal, he describes the sweetness, cuteness, and loyalty of this puppy then concludes, "he licked my hand. And then he pooped." Fantastic. Kim's handling of the tricky character of Ralph is smart and wonderfully delicate.
Director Trip Cullman's pacing is spot on, as are his choices. There are several moments in the play that could be played either as jokes or as weighty, poignant moments - Cullman struck an excellent balance. Cullman's staging is simple, making great use of the minimalist set (Erik Flatmo). The ensemble is solid. Each actor brought something very specific to how his/her character fits into the family as well as how they don't fit together. The family dynamic created on stage is interesting to witness, and maybe even recognize, at times.
American Hwangap presents a family story that is relatable and real. A story full of hurt and laughs, with a lot of issues made simple, and a lot of simple things made into issues. It is about one American family with a hope of repairing mistakes made, and maybe even the chance at a new beginning.
(American Hwangap performs at The Wild Project, 195 East 3rd Street, through June 7th. Tues.- Sat. at 8pm; Sat at 3 pm; Sun at 4pm. The show is 90 min.'s with no intermission. Tickets are $25 and can be reserved by calling 212-352-3101. Discount tickets available at www.broadwaybox.com. For more info visit www.playco.org and/or www.mayitheatre.org.)