Christopher Chen speaks quickly. Looking at him face to face, you can see the playwright’s thoughts as they begin to form. His mind seems eager and impatient to express itself out loud even as he politely waits for you to finish your slowly articulated sentences. He’s the type of person who’s naturally adept at anticipating questions about his work. Chen has already thought through any angle you can come up with. If you’re confused about a plot point, he nods with a great deal of understanding and affability.
Those qualities in his fast-paced speech patterns and his quick-thinking were evident in his last two plays produced in the Bay Area — Caught at Shotgun Players and You Mean to Do Me Harm, produced by San Francisco Playhouse. In his latest play, A Tale of Autumn, the actors have been directed to take a more measured approach to their line readings. Instead of speedy deliveries, slight but deliberate pauses are built in. They feel tailor-made for absorption, so the audience won’t miss the meanings packed into each and every exchange.
A Tale of Autumn is set in a parallel universe. A closer cousin to Caught than Harm, the rules and laws there only apply within its narrowly defined boundaries. The costumes (by Miriam R. Lewis) are the first signs that indicate we’re in some futuristic New Age. The hemlines have all gone awry. They’re either elongated or cut too short. We’re made aware of how the angularity of the designs or the drape and flow of the curves relate to and reveal something about the character wearing them. This is a society that the fashion designer Rick Owens would approve of, one in which Star Trek uniforms merge with the beige and bone-colored swaddling robes that were worn in Jesus Christ Superstar.
One of Chen’s greatest strengths as a dramatist is his ability to create unreliable narrators who can make their unreliability convincing. It was hard to know who to believe in his previous plays, but that’s less true in Autumn. The playwright’s natural instincts for black comedy and farce are battling with his effort to write something earnest and substantial. He posits a world that’s divided into orderly yet severely drawn social classes like the ones in Brave New World and The Handmaid’s Tale. But the villains here are too easy to spot, they have all the money and all the power — so of course they’re the villains!
The CEO of FarmCo has died. Two contenders are vying to take her place with the help of other co-workers and the Board of Directors’ consent. Dave (Lawrence Radecker), who heads the department of agriculture, is a shoe-in for the job. But the CEO’s former protégé San (Nora el Samahy) is running on a full tank of ambition. Chen has written several exquisite monologues in the form of doublespeak for San. With her hair slicked back, el Samahy endows the character with the coolest demeanor possible (she might be channeling the chilliest version of David Bowie). San is determined, purposeful and free of self-doubt. It may be that Chen has conceived of her with total clarity because the actress makes her the most compelling, if least recognizably human, figure on stage.
When the story moves out of the office and away from their power struggle, the logic and the relevance of the subplots start to blur. Rena (Maria Candelaria), a FarmCo underling, tries to convince a private landowner Gesalm (Michele Apriña Leavy) to sell her farm. Instead, Rena falls under the spell of Gesalm’s hippie values, her home-cooked stew, freshly baked bread, and her individual stance against the tyrannical corporation. When asked for clarification about certain plot inconsistencies that followed, Chen suggested that since A Tale of Autumn is a fable the audience needn’t worry about them. It’s the big picture we’re supposed to reflect upon.
But the big picture is hard to take in when any number of small details go astray. For example, Dave is introduced as being in a relationship with Gil (Shoresh Alaudini), but it turns out he’s also seeing Mariana (Mia Tagano). Mariana has just had a baby. Is it his? No one ever confirms or denies it. Does Gil know about the baby or their relationship? Introducing Dave’s bisexuality, his divided self, doesn’t clarify his motivations, nor does it get in the way of them. It unnecessarily complicates a plot already stuffed with random tangents.
Those tangents worked as character quirks in Caught, temporary diversions that built up the atmosphere of absurdity. Here that sense of irony and wit, the blazing pace, is abandoned for solemnity, to tell us what we already know — corporations are evil. A Tale of Autumn might be a transitional work for Chen, in which his earlier style matures in a different direction. A playwright can work out all of the story details in his head but if they don’t appear on stage it’s unfair of him to expect that we can somehow extract them by reading his mind.