Review: “Distant Observer: Tokyo/New York Correspondence” at LaMaMa Experimental Theatre Club

Anthony J. Piccione

  • New York Theatre Critic

Telling unique stories and creating great art is the primary goal of nearly every playwright. However, it’s not always as easy of a goal when two playwrights are collaborating together, as they’re writing the same story that they both hope will resonate with audiences. That’s exactly what was on display during the premiere of Distant Observer: Tokyo/New York Correspondence – a collaboration between Japanese playwright Takeishi Kawamura and American playwright John Jesurun – at the LaMaMa Experimental Theatre Club.

The play itself revolves around a man who was released from prison after being locked away for ten years for an alleged murder. Some of the first few scenes were engaging, but as the play progressed, it became more and more obvious that this was not the cohesive vision of one particular artist. Rather, the emphasis seems to be more on the play’s creative process, rather than the final product. There are aspects to appreciate about it. It provokes important questions on issues such as suicide and xenophobia, and there were some humorous moments that prompted a few chuckles. Still, the plot was far from the highlight of this production.

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What’s more impressive, on the other hand, is the staging and production aesthetics. Historically speaking, LaMaMa is no stranger to putting up visually stunning productions of unconventional plays, and this show seems to fit well into that pattern. With audiences seated on both sides of the Ellen Stewart Theatre, the actors are scattered across the black box stage, allowing theatergoers to watch from the sidelines as the action takes place in the center. The usage of video projections was masterful, as various backgrounds set the tone of various moments of the play, while the live projection of actors that are onstage also enhanced the performance. The colorful lighting of the show also helped with creating the show’s atmosphere. I wish I could give proper credit to the director for these choices, although it wasn’t clear to me from the program or the press release who exactly directed it.

The cast of this show consists of five performers playing various unnamed characters: Claire Buckingham, Anastasia Olowin, Kyle Griffiths, Samuel Im, and Kotoba Dan. All five of these actors display a high level of energy, as well as a certain degree of humor and charisma, that keep the play going at a quick pace and help with keeping the audience immersed in this show.

While I admire these playwrights for attempting this unique creative exercise, I can’t help but think that more collaboration on the script would have made the show even better. I will note that some others who attended seemed to enjoy this show even more than I did, afterwards, so maybe it’s one of those shows which requires a second viewing for me to fully wrap my head around. In any case, as of this review, while the production was staged beautifully and the usage of video added to the overall theatrical experience, there’s not much else that stands out to me, when analyzing the end result of this writing experiment.

 “Distant Observer: Tokyo/New York Correspondence” runs at the Ellen Stewart Theatre at LaMaMa Experimental Theatre Club from March 16t to April 1st. For more information, please visit www.lamama.org.