Sell or Die

Naotake Fukushima is a young man with a problem. Dumped upon the alien shores of 1958 Long Beach with a boatload of minitrucks and a stern edict from his Tokyo superiors to sell or die trying, Naotake (Greg Watanabe) does what any enterprising young entrepreneur would do after setting foot in America: he runs like hell. Or, in this case, drives his tin-can demo pickup until it runs out of gas in the middle of an strawberry field in the dead of night. Here, the starched and tradition-bound Naotake is caught, deer-like, in the harsh beam of farm forewoman Rosie Yohsida's flashlight.

Rosie (Tamlyn Tomita) is a brash young Nisei with the smooth patter and shell-game ethics of a, well, car salesman. An unlikely partnership is forged, and the rest is history. Or today's Camry.

John Olive's The Summer Moon is a tale of the past meeting the future, of old personal and cultural ghosts in the bold new glare of postwar American capitalism. It is a tale that, in its first half, often soars under director Mark Rucker's light, steady hand. Then the writing hits some heavy turbulence, and the play never regains altitude.

Alone, Watanabe and Tomita spark a combustible and appealing chemistry, with Naotake's endearing befuddlement the perfect foil for Rosie's swaggering confidence. The turbulence comes late in the first act, in the form of Rosie's estranged husband Arnie, a loose-cannon ex-pilot seriously wounded in a bombing raid over Tokyo. The trouble with Arnie isn't that he doesn't fit into the postwar world; it's that he doesn't fit into Olive's play. Wedged in as a device to sling a delicate, bittersweet story of loss and discovery into the searing global arena of atomic annihilation, Arnie never evolves beyond A Symbol, dimming the clear glow of this Moon.

The Summer Moon at South Coast Repertory Second Stage, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555. Tues.-Fri., 7:45 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 2 N 7:45 p.m. Through Dec. 5. $26-$45.

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