We seem to be emerging from the days of strictly topical drama: gay polemics in which coming out or coping with AIDS is the dramatic focus, or countercultural pieces that take as their sole theme the difficulties faced by immigrants in America. A Language of Their Own, the second play in a trilogy by Chay Yew, attempts to use both subjects as a jumping-off place to explore a third: the role of language in theater and, by extension, in intimate relationships. As directed by Tim Dang, Yew's four-character play overcomes a talky, monotonous beginning to develop into a drama of genuine power.
The playwright owes an enormous debt to Tony Kushner's Angels in America. (I doubt it's mere coincidence that A Language of Their Own had its world premiere at the New York Shakespeare Festival under Producing Director George C. Wolfe, who directed Angels on Broadway.) What Yew gained from careful observation of Kushner is an appreciation for the complications of human interaction rather than the possibilities for formulaic solutions.
Two lovers — Oscar (Merv Maruyama) and Ming (Art Desuyo) — decide in the friendliest and most civil of ways to split up after learning that Oscar's HIV test is positive. Four years of happiness, it seems, is no stopgap, and AIDS has loomed as an impossible obstacle. Ming no longer feels attracted to Oscar. Rather than risk further rejection, Oscar quickly acts to end the relationship.
In parallel monologues addressed to the audience, more details emerge: In addition to Oscar's HIV status, Ming is upset at Oscar's rigid adherence to his Chinese heritage, which manifests itself as a crippling inability to express feelings. Oscar fears showing affection, especially in public; and, in what will become a touching recurrent image, allows Ming to hold only his finger instead of his hand. Ming, we learn, is a fully assimilated Chinese-American who has forgotten his native language and no longer experiences a connection to his roots.
Both men are adrift in the American culture: Ming, disowned by his family for the highly American act of coming out; Oscar, uncomfortable with the necessity of remaining closeted. They agree to part and start divvying up their collection of CDs. The classical are Oscar's, the Pet Shop Boys are Ming's. They are as casual as if they were nothing more than college roommates.
Ming gets involved right away with Robert (Eric Newton), an Anglo dreamboat who has no problem showing emotion. Oscar finally allows Daniel (Alan S. Quismorio) into his life, a young, proactive Asian queer with a passion for IKEA, the Swedish prefab furniture store. Between playwright Yew and director Dang, the dramatic line in which Ming and Oscar remain bound by a love neither can live with or without is well drawn if highly predictable.
What is surprising is the way in which the passion of these two lovers is developed. Instead of taking the expected (simplistic) romantic turn in which their limitations prevent intimacy either with each other or with anyone else, they learn skills from their new partners that might have allowed them to stay together.
The emphasis shifts from talking to taking action, from intellectualizing to feeling. What Ming and Oscar do dramatically is to use language to avoid contact. They speak more easily to the audience than they do to one another. Language — and that includes the rhetoric of gay politics as well as American English and Chinese — is almost another character; it serves as a buffer, allowing them to deflect intimacy at the outset. But as the play develops and mere words are revealed as inadequate, language becomes an obstacle to be circumvented.
This is dramatically risky. The playwright is taking a gamble that his writing is powerful enough and that his actors will be able to maintain a high level of interest even as the characters grow increasingly distant. In the initial telling of their story, Ming and Oscar use poetic rhythms and repetition, devices requiring absolute confidence of delivery, which on opening night was shaky. It is also unfortunate that the rhetoric aspires to heights greater than it achieves — it wants to sing and soar but only does so intermittently.
As Oscar, Merv Maruyama's constraint is nearly absolute; while he displays a moving degree of pathos in the end, his performance in the first act borders on the monotonous. Art Desuyo's Ming is more immediately attractive and compelling. However, he, too, seems so quick to relinquish a four-year relationship his part of the conflict is nearly buried.
But a fascinating thing takes place early in the second act. Just when I, for one, was sure I could see the outcome and the nature of the play as it was developing — a reasonably compelling but all too predictable tale of love gone wrong — it took off in another direction. What happens is that Robert and Daniel arrive. As played by Eric Newton and Alan S. Quismorio, respectively, they bring to the play and to each of the estranged lovers the bracing air of clarity as well as the liberating ability to touch.
As Robert, Newton supplies passion and sensuality that raise the ante for Ming and, by default, for Oscar. Newton is restrained yet tactile, powerful yet vulnerable. He wants Ming and shows it. When Ming feels the need to back away — to “see other people” — Robert's pain and frustration are palpable.
Quismorio creates a Daniel who is Oscar's perfect complement: modest and delicate — nearly effeminate — yet strengthened by the knowledge of who he is and what he's about. His devotion to Oscar and his faithful tenacity in spite of the AIDS nightmare is inspiring and heroic. It also gives Oscar the constancy he has needed, finally freeing him to allow his feelings to show.
After what feels like a long poetic preamble, the play stops functioning as a mere exercise in language and becomes a fluent expression of love, devotion, and passion in the face of horrific illness and cultural repression. Its dynamic — initially a flat two-character interchange — deepens in the end to a rich, three-dimensional lesson in humanity.
A Language of Their Own runs through Feb. 4 at the Asian American Theatre Center in S.F.; call 751-2600.