Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Also see Susan's recent review of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and coverage of the 2023 Helen Hayes Awards
Director Trip Cullman and his four actors take a heightened, satiric approach as the play follows the clash between Katie (Karoline), author of a best-selling work of popular history, and Harry (Josh Stamberg), a know-it-all television producer who has optioned her book as a miniseries. The topic is the Chinese Exclusion Act, a U.S. law passed in 1882 that prohibited the entry of all Chinese people; the law was not repealed until 1943 and a strict quota on Chinese immigrants remained in force until 1968.
While Katie wants the miniseries to focus on her research into the true stories of Chinese immigrants during that period, Harry wants to juice it up, arguing that something can be "emotionally true" without being factually correct. If that means rewriting the history of a mass lynching of Chinese men or changing a major character's profession from a seamstress to a sex worker, he wants to broadcast what sells, not be tied to actual events or telling stories that haven't been heard.
The other characters are Malcolm (Tony Nam), Katie's husband, doing his best to be supportive and prepared to help her if he can, and Viola (Michelle Vergara Moore), an Australian-Asian movie star who befriends Katie after being cast in the series. Lin takes them all through several reversals, leading to a satisfying if cynical resolution.
The drama revolves around Katie, which means that Karoline has to carry the production, appearing in almost every scene. They have to find the balance between strict fidelity to the historic record and pragmatism, and they succeed throughout. Stamberg plays a driven man who gets things done while exasperating everyone around him; Moore radiates calm as things have always turned out well for Viola; and Nam plays Malcolm as a man who always stands behind Katie–and the possibility of something for himself.
The physical production is beautiful. Arnulfo Maldonado's scenic design incorporates a lot of delightful details, from the movie posters and tie-in merchandise in Harry's glossy office to the trendy coffee shop ("turmeric macadamia almond") where Katie meets with Viola. Sarah Cubbage has designed luscious dresses for the two women, while Adam Honoré's lighting design emphasizes the glamour of show biz until the moment when it doesn't.
Exclusion runs through June 25, 2023, at Arena Stage, Kreeger Theater, Mead Center for American Theater, 1101 6th St. SW, Washington DC. For tickets and information, please call 202-488-3300 or visit www.arenastage.org.
By Kenneth Lin