Attending to Jon Robin Baitz's "Chinese Friends" at Playwrights Horizons is akin to being trapped in a maze with no end in sight. As in lauded earlier works, the playwright is dealing with the conflicts between a repressive society and personal integrity. This time the halves don't mesh, and we're left with a messy pottage of polemics instead of the human tensions he previously mined.
Baitz imagines a world of the future, 2030 to be exact, in which the search for fathers is played out against a background of a country that has lost its moral compass. Although he writes with the same intensity of anger, pain, and loss as in his other plays, this time the anger has gotten the better of him.
The three adult children who descend on the father of one of them on a remote New England island are byproducts of the new millennium, living on a commune they describe as "a temporary autonomous zone." There they're safe -- or at least removed -- from a government now run by martial strength.
What they discover about their fathers, in scenes of ever-increasing physical threats (fight direction by Joseph Travers), finally comes down to matters of power and sex. Truths will out, mainly through the awkward device of recordings.
Baitz writes with fervor and intelligence, yet he's finally embroiled in the "terrible miasma" he so decries, leading to a ludicrous ending that had the audience snickering.
Director Robert Egan does what he can with the static script. Peter Strauss bursts with anger and sarcasm as the father. As the kids, Tyler Francavilla, Bess Wohl, and Will McCormack give vigorous portrayals of ill-defined characters.
Santo Loquasto's attractive set is just right for a rustic retreat, while Donald Holder's lighting, Laura Bauer's costumes, and Obadiah Eaves' music and sound help establish an oppressive atmosphere.