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Wednesday, Jan 13 1999
City of Romance
Women of Manhattan. By John Patrick Shanley. Directed by Douglas Sept. Starring Robin Mechlowitz, Renee Smith, M. Jane Barrett, George Alvarez, and Ron Malveaux. At the Next Stage, in the Trinity Episcopalian Church at the corner of Gough and Bush (entrance on Gough), through Jan. 30. Call 863-6200.

Sexual Perversity in Chicago, which two members of Havoc Theater were in last year, was about romance in Chicago, and Women of Manhattan, the first play by Havoc Theater as a company, is about romance in New York. In both productions Jane Barrett plays an edgy, misanthropic, "sick chick" who mainly just needs to get laid. Now, there is no lack of women like these in San Francisco. Is there some good reason to do plays about them set in other cities? Or are the members of Havoc Theater doing a patient, city-by-city pastiche of the U.S.?

Women of Manhattan follows the romantic lives of three 30-ish women. One is married, one is getting over some guy who's left his sneakers in the living room, and the third, Judy, complains about all the sexless and sensitive men she hangs out with. Judy is the misanthrope. She hasn't had sex in some time because the men she prefers turn out to be gay. Her friends break it to her that she's a fag-hag, and one of them fixes a blind date for her with a cultured, predatory Casanova who also happens to be black. This core scene is the reason to see the show. The other scenes, depicting the three women bonding over alcohol, feel flat and line-read except when one of them breaks into a lively monologue. (Another scene featuring one of the women and her husband, having margaritas on a balcony while hamburgers burn, suffers from flat patches, too.)

But there's chemistry between Judy and Duke, the Casanova. It's a cautious, flinty chemistry, but the tense energy brings on some near-perfect comic timing. "Oh, so this is your den," says Judy, glancing around the gin joint where they've met. "I didn't realize I was sitting among the bones of your former meals." Duke has glasses, a bushy ponytail, and a goatee. Ron Malveaux plays him guardedly, with a quiet voice, taking each of Jane's barbs with philosophical calm. Malveaux seems a little diffident onstage, and some of Duke's guardedness may be the actor's own, but he's ultimately in control of his character and the thorny pas de deux comes off well.

Jane Barrett also seems more comfortable venting Judy's man-frustration on Duke than she does getting along with her girlfriends. Billy and Rhonda-Louise, the other Manhattan women, are frustrated for different reasons; Rhonda's frustrations are thinly developed in the script, but when she gets a monologue Renee Smith does a sharp job with them; she's hyperactive and crisp. Otherwise Women of Manhattan is an ordinary play, universal without being timeless, and I can't see any reason why, for its next show, Havoc Theater shouldn't be able to find some similar script about romance in San Francisco.

-- Michael Scott Moore

American Dreaming
Paper Son. Written and performed by Byron Yee. At the Cliff Osmond Theater, 340 Mason (at Geary), through Feb. 14. Call 388-4449.

Paper Son has a promising name. Not only is Byron Yee Chinese, and not only does paper vaguely evoke China; but "paper son" also turns out to be a common term for an illegal (Chinese) immigrant. After the 1906 fire destroyed San Francisco records, most of Chinatown came forward to claim legal citizenship, and the government granted it to almost everyone; so most of the men naturalized that year were not actual sons of legal Chinese immigrants but "paper sons." (Yee points out that if they'd all been legal, every Chinese woman in San Francisco at the time would have had about 800 boys.) Yee's father also became a paper son in the '40s when his family fooled U.S. Immigration with an elaborate story involving his uncle, and the saga of his family, like almost all family sagas, is fascinating.

But the name, as well as the hype surrounding the show, sets up Paper Son for a stumble. Not a fall, exactly -- the show isn't bad -- but a disappointing little trip. Because so much of what should be funny about the performance is tired, and so much of what's fascinating about the show is presented as a seminar -- Yee basically tells how he came to learn his family history, using a few comedian's tricks -- Paper Son feels unexpectedly flat.

Yee starts with a common stand-up story about a young actor meeting the crassness of Hollywood. The movie -- Grumpier Old Men, in Yee's case -- needed a Chinese restaurant owner with a stupid accent. It is funny that Yee, who grew up in Oklahoma, was no good at Chinese accents, and went to a Chinese restaurant with a tape recorder to study an actual specimen of the type; but he milks the story for predictable laughs, and by the end we don't need to be told that trying to audition as a vapid stereotype was "the longest 30 minutes of my life."

Yee is one of those performers who play other people with more flair than they present themselves -- a common solo-performer trait -- so the strongest scenes are the ones he dramatizes. After the audition-scene in L.A., Yee gives us an old Chinese man at the Angel Island museum, telling a just-so story about why cats and rats hate each other. The story itself, and the way the old man tells it, are charming; and when it's over we learn the little-known local detail that Angel Island was a station for Chinese immigrants between 1910 and 1940. "Some people call it 'Ellis Island of the West,' " says the old man, in a convincing accent. "But for Chinese, more like other island -- Alcatraz."

Slowly we realize he's talking to Yee. If the whole show were as cleverly shaped and performed as this scene, it would be magnificent, but the ending devolves into a strident lecture about Angel Island and the sheer weight of the past that Yee, just a boy from Oklahoma, never even thought to investigate. Enthralling, but no points for presentation.

-- Michael Scott Moore


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