Beautifully Familiar

A high frothy intellectual divertissement making its SoCal debut at the Laguna Playhouse, 36 Views is so pretty to look at and so elegantly directed by Chay Yew you're often convinced it's as beautiful as the supposedly rare thousand-year-old Asian artifact at the center of the play's plot. This is Yew's third go-round directing Naomi Iizuka's passionately literate comedy (he put on previous productions in Oregon and New York), and by now, the staging is seamless: though the actors inhabit a large bare stage (exquisitely lit by Jos Lpez), nothing they do looks like “business,” their timing is crack, and the scenes play with the charmed assurance that can only emerge when a writer's and director's visions come together like a sexy kiss in the middle of the stage. Whether that kiss promises more than the excitement of the moment is another question.

The play's about a slightly overly dashing art dealer named Darius Wheeler (Stephen Caffrey), who comes upon what appears to be an 11th century Japanese manuscript called a “pillow book,” written by a Japanese courtesan a millennium ago and containing her meditations on her many lovers. Darius, who has “an eye for beautiful things”—paintings, ancient manuscripts, women—attracts a crowd with his discovery: a couple of art professors; his brilliant erratic assistant; a seducible journalist; and a cynical, disappointed artist who does restorations for him. The manuscript's tales are dramatized in stately fluid scenes in which masked actors employ the slow ritual movements of Noh drama. Iizuka braids such scenes with contemporary ones, which develop the thick and shrewd skein of motivations—romantic, deceitful, financial—animating the characters' efforts to profit either from the manuscript's authenticity or forgery. This interplay, brought off smooth as can be, is in keeping with Iizuka's desire to create a dramatic form that, as she puts it elsewhere in the play, mixes “the Asian and the Western . . . the classical and the contemporary.”

Declaring itself as hunting big game, 36 Views is after the nature of beauty itself—as one character puts it, with “the beauty of the thing recognized in the moment of its impermanence . . . what endows a thing with beauty and what renders it precious.” But the polished sheen of the play's ideas hides their essential staleness—not a single idea here hasn't been developed to infinitely greater effect in, say, William Gaddis' The Recognitions. And Yew could rein in his actors' overenunciated, declamatory line readings: aside from Melody Bitiu's refreshingly sardonic artist, nobody talks quite like a recognizable person here—they sound like actors' versions of high-culture types, an inauthenticity that bleeds into the rest of the play and makes you wonder just a little what combination of the real and the forged is animating this production.

36 Views At the Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Rd., Laguna Beach, (949) 497-2787. Tues-fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 N 8 p.m.; sun., 2 N 7 p.m. thrOuGH Jan. 30. $45-$54.

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