There’s a tale about an elementary school arts teacher whose students routinely produce magnificently beautiful works of art. A parent asks one day what her secret is to consistently producing such excellent artists.
“Simple.” The teacher says. “You just have to know when to take their paints away.”
I didn’t make up that story, but it came to mind in about the 100th minute of the intermission-less “Hot Asian Doctor Husband,” receiving its world premiere courtesy of Theater Mu. Leah Nanako Winkler’s script is smart and sharp-eyed; penetrating and really, really funny. It also needs streamlining and focus.
The story centers on Emi, a millennial whose ethnic roots are half-Caucasian, half-Japanese. After enduring the death of her beloved mother in a freak accident, Emi begins to re-think her life and her heritage. She breaks things off with her white boyfriend (“I need to decolonize my vagina.”) and goes on a search for her dream man, whose qualities give the play its name.
The aforementioned and otherwise unnamed physician is, in fact, out there, but .. .he’s already someone’s husband. And he seems to have fallen out of the page of the DSM-5 that describes Narcissistic Personality Disorder. The hookup, Emi reasons, will be deeper and more meaningful because, she believes, “he understood me because he was one of me.”
Matters are rarely that simple, of course, and Winkler spins the audience through a kaleidoscopic tour of love, sex and racial identity from a variety of perspectives. Her principal prism is the mixed-race lens of Emi and another struggling millennial named Veronica (“Ugh. Why do people think exoticism is a compliment?).
But African-American voices are heard (“Honestly,” opines Veronica’s kind-of boyfriend Leonard, “I’d prefer being loved because of my uniqueness or ‘exoticism’ over being dumped because I’m black.”). As does a Caucasian perspective (“Being a white guy is easy and I know it, but it’s also kind of hard,” sings Emi’s erstwhile boyfriend Collin in an impromptu folksong “You must be culturally aware of your position in the world and show it.”).
The perspectives are toothsome and earnest, which gives the playwright license to take a sharp detour about two thirds of the way through the script. The goofy rom-com vibe gives way to a more serious and more surrealistic final chapter in which Emi has a reckoning with herself, with love and with death.
It’s a meaningful and rational departure from the preceding goofiness. But the downshift is abrupt and jarring: It’s difficult for the audience to move from blithe and bubbly and gently thought-provoking to down-and-dirty introspection, and so sometimes “Hot Asian Doctor Husband” feels like two plays smushed together rather gracelessly.
Director Seonjae Kim powers through with strong cast to help her. Meghan Kreidler’s Emi is so engaging and energetic and in-the-moment that it’s easy to ignore how narcissistic her character is. Danielle Troiano’s Veronica melds vulnerability and cognizance; she’s probably the most self-aware character on stage.
The male roles of Collin and Lawrence are under-written; Damian Leverett and Mikell Sapp amiably capture, respectively, the charm and the swagger of the millennial male.
It seems safe to assume the title character is the playwright’s favorite. Eric Sharp takes this gift and runs with it, crafting a character who’s a pig and a player whose self-reflection runs a millimeter deep. And yet he’s undeniably appealing. Audiences who saw him in the Jungle’s recent “Small Mouth Sounds” know Sharp is rapidly becoming the regional authority on the deadpan persona and the tiny, telling facial expression. Excepting for an expansive, deeply screwball interpretive dance that occupies the entirety of the stage, Sharp offers a masters’ thesis in the less-is-more school of acting.
That’s a syllabus the rest of “Hot Asian Doctor Husband” might profitably spend some time studying.
Theater Mu’s production of “Hot Asian Doctor Husband”
- When: Through Sept. 1
- Where: Mixed Blood Theatre, 1501 S. Fourth St., Minneapolis
- Tickets: $35 or “pay as you are” (see website for details)
- Information: 651-789-1012 or muperformingarts.org
- Capsule: Playwright Leah Nanako Winkler blends rom-com and cultural studies with mixed results.