It's a lovely world Myung Hee Cho has created with her set constructed of bamboo and shadows, and it manages to nicely evoke the exotic remove of colonial Southeast Asia in the 1920s in the first act as well as the bustle of the same area today for the second. Karl Fredrik Lundeberg's sound design handsomely embellishes the effect, employing everything from whispering gamelans to a jet engine on takeoff. One draws comfort in realizing the actors have such a pretty place to dwell for two and a half hours, because their time there is otherwise spent trying, and only occasionally succeeding, to bring to life Chay Yew's contrived and lifeless script that is notable primarily for being almost entirely expository. It doesn't quite sink to the "tell me again, I've forgotten" level, but to have one scene consisting of nothing but a journalistic interview comes mighty close. The colonization/globalization parallel gets belabored, the result being that characters stand around spouting social dialectics in the oddest of places. The text remains obdurately ensconced on the page, rarely conceding to nestle comfortably in an actor's mouth and resemble human speech. There is something going on about finding the right person in this world, but it comes off as coldly mechanical.
The actors are clearly giving it their all but getting precious little support. Robert Egan's direction is unable to surmount the didacticism of the piece—and who's to say anyone's could?—and the performers seem resigned to their characters. Some are at their best in the first act, particularly Emily Kuroda, as a hard-nosed village mother whose son may be marrying inappropriately, and Esther K. Chae, as the mother's gossip conduit and preferred bridal candidate. Maria Cina and Daniel Blinkoff come into their own during the second half once they get to drop the British accents from Act One; Cina as a stylish if heartless corporate honcho, Blinkoff as a terribly earnest reporter for the Asia Journal. At least having Blinkoff deliver one of the longer, duller speeches toward the end while shirtless was, my date and I agreed, inspired.
"A Distant Shore," presented by Center Theatre Group at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. Tue.-Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 2 & 8 p.m. Sun. 2 & 7 p.m. (Also Wed. 2 p.m., May 18. Dark Sun. 7 p.m., May 22.) May 1-22. $19-40. (213) 628-2772.