‘BFE’ at Brooklyn Repertory, and a Lesson in Ambivalence

Thomas Burns Scully

As a reviewer, sometimes you see absolutely terrible theatre, and sometimes you get to see absolutely brilliant theatre. But most of the time, as dictated by the laws of averages and common sense, you see theatre that’s somewhere between the two. That’s what I saw at the Kraine Theatre earlier this week. Except, not quite. At their recent production of ‘BFE’ by Julia Cho, the producers (Brooklyn Repertory) had a show which was, at times, exemplary, and at other times, not. I haven’t seen a show that has run the gamut of quality so wildly in a ninety minute time-frame. This is not a disingenuous statement, nor is it meant as a strange back-handed compliment. Their production felt like a unification of several different smaller productions, some of which were top of the line, and others which were difficult to watch. Am I making myself clear? I don’t think I am. Luckily, I have a few more paragraphs to explain with. Here goes.

‘BFE’ is a tragicomedy, written by Julia Cho in the earlier days of the 2000s. It follows the story of Panny, a disenchanted, socially awkward fourteen year old, and her small, socially awkward, disenchanted family. Her mother is obsessed with beauty and plastic surgery and never leaves the house. Her uncle is obsessed with Warhammer figures, and is the put-upon bread-winner of the family. All of them are lonely in their own way, and all three accidentally get involved in their own ‘meet-cute’ storyline that eventually ends in disaster. Panny accidentally falls for a goofy Mormon college student. Her uncle falls for an aura reading, clothes store attendant. Her mother falls for the first man who happens to come along. Quite literally. She falls for the pizza delivery boy. The whole play has a rom-com, happy-sad quality to it, sharp dialogue and a steadfast social conscience. But the script is not where the issues lie.

Casting is, in fact, where the play runs in to its difficulty. The ensemble varies wildly in terms of their capability. Panny is the shows de facto lead, in that she is the voice of the play. Elisabeth Ng’s portrayal is, well… underwhelming. Particularly in the first half of the play, she treads water with difficulty, just about keeping up with the emotional demands at the material, but failing to make herself the subject of our empathy. Her scenes with Hugh Cha as her uncle ‘Lefty’ are particularly flat. Cha is incredibly stiff on-stage, overplaying the shy awkwardness of his character with an excess of physical tension that is tiring to watch. However, Shii Ann Huang, who plays Panny’s mother, Isabel, isn’t bad at all. Her initial scenes with Panny and Lefty are a little pedestrian, but when we see her in her own fantasy world, and seducing the pizza boy, she’s downright hilarious, and incredibly touching.

Are you starting to see what I mean about varied casting? Well, that continues with the introduction of Hugo Fowler as Panny’s sort-of boyfriend. When I saw him on Sunday in ‘Twelfth Night’ as Feste, I said that he started out being annoying, but then gradually earned his way in to your affections. He does much the same here. His cutesy boyishness is at first irritating, but darn it all of it doesn’t become endearing after about ten minutes. He has a nice genuine quality that makes him easy to watch. Something which I found hard to say about Gillian Rougier. She plays Lefty’s new age-y love interest and… she’s just kind of there. She says a lot of witty dialogue, but none of it feels like it comes from anywhere. Perhaps it’s a side-effect of being opposite Hugh Cha, but there was a distinct lack of chemistry between the two actors.

Then, after all these ups and downs of casting, we arrive at the show’s two heavy-weights: Ron Nummi, and Tina Wong Lu. Wong Lu plays Panny’s school-mandated Korean pen-pal, and she’s an absolute treat to watch. Her first moments onstage felt like someone had suddenly found the on-switch for a giant wind machine, so much so did she blow us all away. She milks every drop out of the over-enthusiastic Korean-schoolgirl stereotype, and it’s absolutely delicious to take in. And Ron Nummi, well… what a guy. He plays the villain of the piece, a sociopathic rapist, and you can’t help but find him unbelievably charming. His whole performance is brilliantly grounded, and almost wholly un-villainous, so when he starts doing horrible, horrible things, he becomes ridiculously disturbing to watch. Every second a highlight, a masterclass in doing it right. I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention Giovanni Marine and Cleo Handler, excellent supporting players, both of them. Even more admirable, when you think of the amount of time they must spend backstage clicking their heels between scenes.

I hope by now you’re getting the picture of why this production has been tricky to review. There is a lot of good stuff in it. And also a good few spoonfuls of boring. Some of the actors are fantastic, others uninspiring. All of this is under the dutiful eye of Director Joe Hayward, a man who’s directing vision I tend to enjoy. You can certainly feel his touch throughout the show, tightening up individual moments and unifying the spartan mis-en-scene of the black box Kraine theatre. His work here falls neatly in to the ‘Pros’ column I’m drawing in my head as I write this. But even as I consider that analogy, and I’m weighing up the positives and negatives of the show, I’m finding it hard to work out what I really want you take away from this review.

What would I tell you to do if the show were running longer? (It had a limited run of only three shows) Brooklyn Rep have thrown together a show here which is… not patchy, that’s the wrong word for it, but which varies wildly in terms of watchability and proficiency. Like a beloved old car, sometimes it rides along perfectly and ably, and other times lurches around and makes terrifying noises as it attempts to change gear. I think, generally, overall, I liked it. It’s a cautious approval, but an approval none-the-less. I have said before in my reviews how you shouldn’t throw babies out with bathwater, and I always much prefer being positive to being negative. This show has a fair share of sins, and if I were in charge I would definitely swap out certain members of the cast. But I have no vitriol to throw, and my abiding memories since watching have been of the scenes that I enjoyed, and not what I didn’t. So yes, I would tell you to go and see it. But be an informed buyer.

Brooklyn Repertory have more work coming up, if you are interested, do check out their website, Facbook page and Twitter feed.

Web: http://brooklynrepertory.com/
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/brooklynrepertory?fref=ts
Twitter: @bkrepertory

This review was written by Thomas Burns Scully, a New York based writer, actor and musician. His work has been lauded in Time Out NY and the New York Times, and his writing has been performed on three continents. He is generally considered to be the thrifty person’s Renaissance man. @ThomasDBS