A.R. Gurney’s “Far East” plays out like a first date. Showing up at first uncomfortable in its skin, the play eases into the moment and picks up speed as it comes closer to the end of the night and its inevitable kiss.
“Far East,” playing at the Studio Theatre, profiles the tense relationship between greenhorn Navy lieutenant Sparky Watts (Matthew Montelongo) and his commander’s wife Julia Anderson (Elizabeth Long), while both are stationed at a Japanese naval base during the Korean War.
Anderson, a longtime friend of the Watts family who is instructed to “keep an eye on” the lieutenant, is shocked to find that almost immediately upon arrival Watts has taken up with a native Japanese girl working on the base. Anderson commits herself to doing everything within her and her husband’s power to keep the two young lovers from each other.
Captain James Anderson (Rich Foucheux), who is struggling to get over the death of his only son during a Navy mission, takes a liking to Watts. The father-son relationship between the two stands out as the most appealing aspect of the play. Foucheux steps neatly into the role of the gruff but sentimental military man, still devoted to the organization that led to his own son’s death. His mannerisms and expression make for a perfect portrayal of Anderson’s character.
Equally impressive is Patrick Moltane in the role of Bob Munger, one of Watts’ bunkmates. In a subplot that dwells on homosexuals in the military and relatively usual questions of ethics, Moltane grasps hold of a difficult and multi-faced character and makes Munger into a consistently three-dimensional being.
Director Joy Zinoman avoids one-line walk-on characters by giving all minor parts to Mia Whang, who supplies the voice to maids, military personnel and countless other minor parts. Her constantly changing voices, which at first appear as unsettling stereotypes, have the effect of sharply delineating one role from the next. Although the method appears unnatural at first, the audience eases into it and forgets it as the play’s webwork of plots pulls taught.
The focus of “Far East” – the relationship between Watts and Mrs. Anderson – eventually stands alone as the only plot line that remains unconvincing. The tension supposedly between the two runs hot and cold and often is not present at all. Elizabeth Long flips the character of Julia Anderson from pose to pose, without discrimination and without a semblance of continuity. It would be nice to label the character as volatile or unpredictable, but these impressions appear more as results of an uneven actor.
The overall positives of “Far East” easily eclipse Long’s faults, and the play leaves the viewer with a predominant sense of satisfaction. The characters of Captain Anderson and Bob Munger make up for any other weaknesses and suggest that “Far East” should expect more than a just a peck on the cheek goodnight.