Diagnosis: Asian Babe Syndrome

Photo by Ed KriegerMaybe you're familiar with Asian Babe Syndrome. From Puccini's Madame Butterfly all the way down to certain contemporary manga, that not-very-enlightened fetish-cum-fantasy of the shy-but-exotic Eastern girl has colored literature and life on both sides of the Pacific Rim. But A.R. Gurney's slight romance Far East spares us such sappy clichs as the desperately grateful Asian woman clinging to the Western male by eliminating any onstage Asian babes—indeed, by channeling all Asian characters through a narrator. Instead, the roles enacted by onstage performers are all Caucasian Americans, focusing this production on three U.S. Navy officers, each a stranger in an even stranger land.

It's 1955, just after the Korean War: the American Occupation of Japan officially ended three years ago, and "made in Japan" is just a meaner way of saying "cheap knock-off"—except, of course, when it comes to desirably demure Japanese women. Lieutenant "Sparky" Watts (Darren Bridgett) arrives in Yokosuka on a Friday; by Monday, he's already occupied a little Japanese territory of his own. His libidinous activities make him forget the Independence Day celebration hosted by commanding officer Captain James Anderson (Frank Ashmore) and Anderson's young wife, Julia (Laura Wernette)—who knows Sparky's family back home and disapproves of Sparky's mistress, as does Sparky's friend Bob (Michael Edwards).

Don't expect deep introspection, lovable heroes or a happy ending: none of these men is particularly admirable, and the cast doesn't try to make them charming, although Edwards does imbue Bob with an aw-shucks whimsy. Instead, Far East is a funny but ultimately unsympathetic dissection of the Asian Babe fantasy, deftly directed in this solid Laguna Playhouse production by Jules Aaron (on Don Gruber's elegantly and appropriately minimalist set).

Downstage left, the "Reader" (Carie Yonekawa) voices the roles of all the Japanese characters as well as some of the minor American ones. She's the only female Asian presence (unless you include one of the "stagehands" or kurogi—people dressed in black performing minor functions whose presence we're supposed to ignore), leaving the fairer side of the production principally to Wernette, who shines as the career woman who has lost her husband to his first love, the Navy. Her Julia has a quick intelligence and uncertain flirtatious side, and through her, Gurney strips down imperialist fantasy to insistent reality, circa 1955.

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So it's not a cure for Asian Babe Syndrome, but at least it's a more cynical version of Asia as Western Man's romantic playground. Gurney delivers a palatable critique with enough laughs to keep everything sweet—but thankfully, there's a not-so-happily-ever-after ending to make sure this particular fantasy isn't so easy to swallow whole.

Far East at Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Rd., Laguna Beach, (949) 497-ARTS. Opens Sat. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m. Through May 5. $38-$45.

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