Review: 'After the War' suffers from overkill

It was a fascinating and highly unusual world premiere at the American Conservatory Theater on Wednesday night. Going against the usual grain of contemporary plays, Philip Kan Gotanda’s “After the War” doesn’t leave you wanting more; rather, it makes your head spin with too much.

Spinning too is Donald Eastman’s monumental set — a three-story revolving building that stands for the play’s venue, a 1948 Japantown boarding house where Japanese-Americans, blacks, a Russian-American and even a couple of Okies congregate, coexist, conflagrate, conjoin and copulate. The structure is symbolic of the play’s too-muchedness: A castle instead of a flophouse, it towers over all, it keeps turning (creaking discreetly), and every time it does, there is a pause, a break, the need to pick up the action again. Too big, too busy, too much.

“After the War” is not too deep or too complex; it merely presents too many, too thick cuts of meat under the guise of a slice-of-life drama. Characters and situations just keep flowing from Gotanda’s pen, Carey Perloff keeps them coming and going in as clear a manner as possible, and there is a large, outstanding cast, but with every actor requiring and deserving more breathing space — and the play just keeps pouring it on.

Except for a very few moments of cardboard characterizations (ironically just when the playwright is telling us that it’s all about people, not race or stereotype), Gotanda’s writing is rich and true. Against the multiple conflicts between those returning from the relocation camps, blacks taking over residences in the temporarily empty Japantown, then losing wartime jobs, and the district itself facing a radical rebuilding project, there are real people here, mostly, not group representatives.

Because of the sensational cast, the best seen here in years, it’s difficult to separate actors and characters. Hiro Kanagawa underplays beautifully the role of Chester, manager of the residential hotel, one of the “No-No Boys,” who (heroically or treacherously) refused both the loyalty oath and Army service; some of his statements ring uncomfortably true in 2007.

Sala Iwamatsu is superb (if slightly overdressed, courtesy of Lydia Tanji) as Lillian, an employee at the hotel, who was the fiancée of Chester’s brother, killed in service in Europe. Her story alone would make a good (perhaps better) play than what is going on.

Steven Anthony Jones is Earl, Chester’s friend and rival for the affections of Mary-Louise, the blond taxi dancer from Oklahoma, played with sleazy verve by Carrie Paff. Francis Jue gives a wonderfully sly performance as the prissy, peculiar Mr. Oji, in love with Olga — perhaps Gotanda’s most memorable creation — a Russian refugee by way of Yokohama, played by the delightful Delia MacDougall, who is mixing Russian and Japanese on her way to an American present and future.

Then there is Harriett D. Foy as Leona, coming to rescue Earl and his daughter (whom we, mercifully, never meet, one less character to watch), and Ted Welch, as Mary-Louise’s retarded and truth-telling young brother, and Sab Shimono as Mr. Goto, hotel owner, and user of Olga, who … and we have just scratched the surface of interplay, intrigues and threads running into one another.

Gotanda’s “journey” is interesting, entertaining and occasionally moving as well. There is enough here for a whole season’s TV drama series, although too much stuff and not enough “aha!” for a single evening.

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