nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 29, 2005
BFE, a play by Julia Cho now at Playwrights Horizons, strikes me as a very sloppily and lazily written work, gussied up by director Gordon Edelstein to feel funky, or relevant, or something. Edelstein has actors on stage in the main living room setting, watching TV, as the audience files in (to signal, I guess, the author's stated intention, per the press release, that the play is about "the devastating effects of an image-obsessed society"). When the play proper starts, Olivia Oguma as the play's main character, 14-year-old Panny, comes to the edge of the stage to deliver the first of many direct-address monologues. This is a bad sign: the sign, generally, of an author who hasn't bothered to figure out another way to get the exposition out. It's fashionable at the moment, but it's almost always an indication of problems ahead, and BFE bears this out in spades.
Panny tells us that there are rumors as to her whereabouts right now, the scariest being that she was the latest victim of a serial killer who is stalking the unnamed small American town where she lives. She's coy about the answer (the play having just begun, after all), and then takes us back a month ago to when the whole thing started. She enters the living room set and we meet her family—Lefty, her uncle, and Isabel, her mother. Eventually we learn that Panny was born out of wedlock and has never known her father; and that Isabel is pretty much a wreck, having left work one day sometime in the past, had some plastic surgery done, and never thereafter left the house.
Panny has typical 14-year-old angst, fretting about being a "geek" because she's smart and worried about not being pretty. The serial killer, whose exploits are voraciously watched by Isabel on the never-off TV, has a predilection for pretty blondes, prompting mother to tell daughter how lucky it is that she's neither. But when Panny's birthday rolls around, Isabel offers her the plastic surgery of her choice as a present.
A phone call to a wrong number leads Panny to Hugo, an apparently nice, ordinary 20-year-old college student. (The only detail we know about him is that he's a Mormon.) Panny and Hugo like talking to each other. She tells him she's 18, and he's eager to meet her. Meanwhile, Lefty meets a saleswoman at the store where he works at the mall. She's a black woman named Evvie who is as lonely as he is, and they click, and their relationship—which is the only one in the play that feels even remotely plausible, thanks mostly to the very humane character work of Karen Kandel—becomes more and more serious. Also meanwhile, Isabel languishes unhappily at home, fantasizing for some reason about General Douglas MacArthur (who, in a dream sequence, assures her that he will in fact return). Later, on the night that Panny goes out to finally meet Hugo but then ends up in the serial killer's car—oops, I shouldn't have given all that away, but don't worry, you totally see it all coming—Isabel seduces a pizza delivery boy, a la Blanche Du Bois (only successfully).
If at this point you're scratching your head and saying, "huh?"—you're not alone. I haven't even mentioned the offensively stereotyped Korean girl who is Panny's pen pal who LONGS to be American and delivers direct-address monologues meant to be letters to Panny in a nasty clipped accent about how great it would be to live in America and consume things and buy things and so on. This character is obviously intended to reinforce Cho's idea about our image-obsessed society, as are the nasty and/or sad outcomes of Panny's encounters with first Hugo, then the Serial Killer (billed enigmatically as just "Man" in the program, but he may as well be wearing a neon sign around his neck, it's so obvious he's the psycho), and, finally, Hugo again. Lefty and Evvie's story, on the other hand, doesn't seem to be about this theme, and just sputters to a limp non-conclusion.
Edelstein does stuff like have actors hover on the sides of the stage (sometimes) and behave as props (Jeremy Hollingsworth, who plays the pizza boy and MacArthur, also has to pretend to be a display rack in Walgreen's on two occasions, holding up a large piece of pegboard containing merchandise on hooks; Sue Jean Kim, who plays the Korean girl, hands Isabel two filled glasses of white wine at the start of the seduction scene). All of this amounts to self-conscious theatricality, probably designed to bolster the lack of content in BFE but instead merely underlining the fact and managing to be distracting to boot.
"BFE," by the way, stands for "bum fuck Egypt," a presumably commonplace phrase I confess to not having been acquainted with; the play does not take place in Egypt. Why has Cho chosen this title? Is she making some kind of statement about the American heartland? The American heartland where Asian families like Panny's live? The American heartland where some people are Mormons and others are black? Ethnicity is mentioned all the time in this play, but it's never discussed, if you see my meaning.
Ultimately, BFE is a jumble of details that don't add up to anything interesting or coherent; don't even make much sense, in fact. Oh yes, the evil of our media-obsessed ways gets exposed, but I'm not sure that very many people in the audience are going to be edified by this clichéd message. Cho, trying too hard to be relevant, has tried too little to create characters and situations that feel authentic and worth caring about. That might be a better place for her start the next time she puts pen to paper.