Wandering in Wonderland

For its first 60 minutes, Wonderland is a play worthy of its title. A compelling story of an architect whose family disintegrates as his work falls apart, the design of Chay Yew's play incorporates powerful issues—minority assimilation, sexuality and the timeless theatrical exploration of the family dynamic—in fresh, stimulating fashion.

But just like the work of the architect at the play's center, Yew's work eventually collapses, unable to sustain the playwright's reliance on movie formulas and emotional excess. The result is a production that looks and frequently sounds awesome—thanks to Yew's obvious writing talent and Lisa Peterson's exceptional direction. But ultimately the experience is mostly faade.

Wonderlandis a memory play about a Southern California family. Yew opts for a framing device quite suitable for the story: a living screenplay. A narrator (an energetic Alec Mapa) introduces characters and locales, moving the action along by announcing fades, pans and other visual tricks of the cinema trade. This isn't a novel device; in one fashion or another, the vocabulary of film has infiltrated, if not infected, much contemporary drama. But the device is no mere adornment here; it actually serves the story.

That story revolves around the family of a man cryptically referred to as Man (a richly drawn Sab Shimono). A third-generation American, Man defines himself solely through his work. He's your classic nonconfrontational, wholly assimilated minority who has grown adept at swallowing ethnic insults. He has huge dreams, and a yearning to build magnificent skyscrapers and cathedrals. But his fear of standing out has forced him to settle for a lucrative, if unsatisfying, career as a designer of mini-malls and shopping centers, including his biggest to date, a Santa Monica mall called Wonderland.

Man's wife is Woman (a perfectly cast Tsai Chin), an opportunistic, sexy Singaporean he met years ago on a business trip. A new immigrant enraptured by the romantic America she knows through movies, Woman is the immigrant who sees in America nothing but promise and potential. The fact that her husband, who once seduced her as much with his ambition as his American passport, is willing to settle for so little, slowly drives a wedge into their marriage.

The product of this union is Young Man (a strong Joel De La Fuente). The son of a silent, workaholic father dedicated to anonymity and a mother who lives in a fantasy world of celluloid dreams, the guy is naturally confused, both ethnically and sexually. (It's no coincidence that Rachel Hauck's set design includes no curves or soft edges; everything is hard, straight lines.)

Young Man's confusion, Woman's frustration, and Man's underlying fear and unhappiness collide when one of his buildings collapses. This is the play's climax, but it comes at the end of Act One, and there's still 60 minutes to go.

And here the play goes awry. We make a sudden, harsh and very dizzying turn into R-rated territory, with teenage runaways forced into male prostitution and low-grade porn films, intravenous drug use, alcoholism, homelessness, and suicide all vying for attention.

It makes for a tawdrier and “edgier” play, but not a better one. The craft and insight Yew displays in the first act dissipates. The characters turn into reverse images of themselves, sometimes predictably (Man bailing out on family and finding solace in double bourbons in a dive bar) and sometimes laughably (Woman seeking solace by making out with Rodin sculptures).

Ultimately, the play stops being about anything, and it becomes difficult to care for its characters and its story. In a way, Yew's Wonderlandis consumed by the dragon it chases. He uses the form of cinema to tell his story, but that rough beast proves unmanageable, turning his play into a series of titillating images. And what could have been a richly absorbing family tragedy becomes a rather typical made-for-cable-TV movie.

Wonderland at the La Jolla Playhouse, La Jolla Village Dr. N Torrey Pines Rd., La Jolla, (619) 550-1010. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 N 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 N 7 p.m. $21-$39.

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