In the first and best in this uneven evening of five long monologues, all of them written by Asian-American playwrights and all of them featuring characters who are over the age of 60, a woman portrayed by Page Leong gets a laugh riffing on the sweaters she knits, each of which takes her three years to make.
“I don’t make them for other people. I don’t do handmade gifts. Nobody wants your handmade gift. They say they do. They think they do…. But in reality, you pour your spare hours into this beautiful collection of tiny knots for three years of your life, and it turns out your daughter-in-law wants to look like that model she saw in the ad for the Gap.”
Each sweater takes three years, she explains, because she makes them without any seams. “You have probably never seen a well-made sweater. They take time.”
That sweater story wound up feeling like advice for how best to appreciate “Out of Time,”which was cooked up by director Les Waters and Mia Katigbak, the artistic director of the National Asian American Theatre Company, and is being presented at the Public Theater through March 13. At its best, as in this first monologue, written by Anna Ouyang Moench and entitled “My Documentary,” it takes time to figure out where the character is going.
The (never-named) woman offers what seems like a rambling series of observations and anecdotes – about her parents fleeing China in 1949; about how she became a documentary filmmaker; how she met her husband; about several tragedies in her life. By the end, we realize the playwright has seamlessly woven together what feels like an actual life – a remarkable one, because every life is remarkable if you learn enough about it; we’ve been amused, and moved, shared in her joys and sorrows and frustrations; we’re even supplied a concrete reason why she’s telling all these stories. I found “My Documentary” a satisfying work of theater in and of itself – perhaps, at 45 minutes, too brief to mount alone Off-Broadway (but I’ve seen briefer.)
As a whole, “Out of Time” has admirable aims – to showcase older actors, and tell the stories of Asian-Americans. Each performance is persuasive. Coincidentally or not, each monologue contains at least one extended observation/quirky fact that’s humorous, fascinating or profound (or all three.) In theory, the pieces should work at least as well together as the online anthology series that were popular during the pandemic lockdown (such as the Homebound Project, Viral Monologues, and #WhileWeBreathe), uplifting for the artists as much as for the audience. Some of them were organized around a theme, or a prompt, but even these allowed the individual artists to roam wherever they wanted.
Indeed, this new in-person anthology, initiated during lockdown, even shares some concerns with the online ones, indirectly (isolation, trauma, loneliness, loss), but also directly. The first line in “My Documentary” is “I remember the last time I touched someone.” At one point in “Disturbance Specialist,” the last monologue, the character says: “I don’t know when I’ll be able to feel comfortable being in a room with so many people breathing at the same time. It makes me feel uneasy.”
The main problem with “Out of Time” is not that the four other monologues didn’t work as well for me as the first. It’s that the storytelling style in all of these disparate monologues is similar – let’s call it discursive. And, unlike the online anthologies, in which each piece was as brief as a minute, and in any case the viewer was in control (able to pause and get a drink), the monologues at the Public are each about half an hour, and theatergoers have to sit through 150 minutes (although that does include an intermission.) This is too long for randomness, no matter how connected the monologues are in theory.
The last four in order:
2. In “Ball in the Air “by Mia Chung, Mia Katigbak enters playing with a paddleball, uses a magic trick to make the ball disappear (which we’re meant to understand as a metaphor) and seems to be telling three stories simultaneously, all of which are about betrayal.
3. In “Black Market Caviar” by Jaclyn Backhaus, we glimpse the corporeal actress Rita Wolf through the curtain, but we can only watch her performance on the monitor center stage. She offers a fascinating disquisition on eggs, and the way they connect past and future generations, which surely had something to do with the references to both 2019, and to 2050; I’ll admit I got lost. Is she a clone? Does she exist only as a video from the future? Is she speaking to her former self?
4. In “Japanese Folk Song” by Naomi Iizuka, Glenn Kubota introduces himself as Taki, but then he says he’s not really Taki, “but an imitation. Like zirconium. Or margarine. Or pleather. Only better, better than pleather.” This is never quite explained, but he’s an amusing raconteur, explaining how he loves a good whiskey and good cigar, but hates jazz. He concludes with a haunting story that, we’re told, is based on the Japanese folktale Yuki Onna.
5. In “Disturbance Specialist,” by Sam Chanse, Leonie is a novelist and an activist at a podium to give a speech at her alma mater in the face of opposition because of some “problematic” Tweets; she doesn’t specify what they are, and never gives her formal, written speech, instead lashing out defensively, and expressing her resentment of the (presumably) protesting students, “you whose skin is smooth and unweathered” judging her.
At one point, Leonie talks about the pinatubo volcano mouse, the only species that was able to survive – thrive! – in the aftermath of the volcanic eruption at Mount Pinatubo; Scientists call this creature a “disturbance specialist.” This is a terrific metaphor, and it made me wonder whether I would have liked this monologue better had it been at the beginning, rather than the end, of “Out of Time.”
Out of Time
At Public Theater through March 13.
Running time: two and a half hours, including intermission
Tickets: $60 (with various discount opportunities)
Written by Jaclyn Backhaus, Sam Chanse,Mia Chung, Naomi Iizuka, and Anna Ouyang Moench
Commissioned and Produced by NAATCO
Conceived and Directed by Les Waters
Presented by The Public Theater
Scenic design by dots, costume design by Mariko Ohigashi, lighting design by Reza Behjat, sound design by Fabian Obispo, dramaturgy by Sarah Lunnie, props management by Caitlyn Murphy, and magic consulting by Steve Cuiffo
Cast: Mia Katigbak, Glenn Kubota, Page Leong, Natsuko Ohama, Rita Wolf