Flexing muscles new and old, the 34-season-strong Asian American Theater Company bounds into its new home at Thick House with young Los Angeles playwright Michael Golamco's wry 2005 comedy, Cowboy vs. Samurai, a clever nod to Edmond Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac set in Breakneck, Wyo., among its modest Asian American community.
The town's Asian American population is so small that it actually doubles (and a community technically forms) with the arrival of high school English teacher and Korean American Travis Park (Chuck Lacson), an easygoing if increasingly exasperated LA transplant. Even this tight-knit society begins fracturing beyond repair with the arrival of a beautiful, self-confident Manhattanite named Veronica Lee (Melissa Navarro), a Korean American who dates only white men. Her sights soon fall on Travis's friend, PE teacher Del (Wylie Herman), a winsome bit of lanky, twangy beefcake in a rumpled cowboy hat whose eloquent love letters, filled with wonderfully offbeat anecdotes and homespun ruminations on the meaning of love, have her swooning.
But in Golamco's shrewd and droll calculation, nobody is quite what he or she seems, or is supposed to seem, in this backwater galumphing into multiculturalism. The most unexpected disguise relates to the sure, mature drama that emerges from behind the mask of puerile comedy. If, as Golamco suggests, identity politics in 2007 lie far beyond simple formulas, the AATC's well-cast and nicely paced production (deftly helmed by San Francisco Mime Troupe veteran Keiko Shimosato) does plain, straightforward justice to this smartly contemporary take on love's muddled p.c., post-p.c., and pre-p.c. negotiations.
Second Wind Production's West Coast premiere of Bay Area playwright-director Ian Walker's latest, The Gravedigger's Tango, is currently up at A Traveling Jewish Theater, which last year housed Walker's tightly written, engagingly original play A Beautiful Home for the Incurable. Unfortunately, Gravedigger falls short of that mark, though it continues to reflect a restlessly inventive pen wielded by the creator of works like Vigilance, Ghost in the Light, and The Stone Trilogy.
The new play folds two stories in one: a young woman (Kathryn Tkel) disguised as her couch-bound trailer-park honey, Trick (Joseph Rende), turns up for a job exhuming graves for a cranky caretaker (Doug Thornburg), soon becoming entranced by the rejuvenating story behind a young woman's dateless tombstone inscribed with her lover's timeless pledge.
The romantic ghost story feeds an interesting if fuzzy theme of natural and unnatural life, though the tango twist feels more tacked on than fully integrated. The complexity of the interwoven plotlines is a lot to pack in, moreover, and each suffers from underdevelopment and a lack of sustained attention amid dialogue that occasionally sparkles but elsewhere proves flat or stilted. There's good work among an uneven cast, but some thinly drawn parts can leave even solid actors like Forsman at a loss. Given these limitations, Gravedigger is definitely mixed fare. Even so, its fresher aspects and sizable ambition bode well from a playwright who, like the romantics he juxtaposes on either side of the grave, has much more to give.*
COWBOY VS. SAMURAI
Thurs/19Sat/21, 8 p.m.; Sun/22, 2 p.m.; $20
1695 18th St., SF
THE GRAVEDIGGER'S TANGO
Through July 28
Thurs.Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; $15$25
Traveling Jewish Theatre
470 Florida, SF