If everyone sacrifices, who gains? Where is the benefit in laying down your life for a person who has already abdicated his own? While O. Henry created deliciously romantic irony out of self-sacrifice, in the world of theatre such tradeoffs are usually the stuff of self-immolation. And so they are in Durango, Julia Cho's marvelously unvarnished, unapologetically small slice of memories, lies, and all else we call family.
In today's alienation-heavy entertainment, the marooned patriarch is a familiar figure; downsized father has supplanted beset king as the tragic hero of choice. Perhaps, then, the only thing instantly remarkable about Boo-Seng Lee (James Saito), a widower father of two boys, is his face. The play, in turn, is remarkable for not highlighting that it's a Korean-American face, but instead suggesting that with regard to facial features, geometry is less relevant than chronology. Though Boo-Seng feels the same as when he was young, he is saddled with an "old face." Durango is concerned with the elision of years that has allowed age to sneak up on Boo-Seng -- and whether he has set up his sons to suffer a similarly corrosive time warp.
Boo-Seng attempts to break lethargic family patterns by means of a road trip -- a radical departure only to Boo-Seng's children, who can't recall their father's attentions ever being directed at more than checking up on them. Yet with high school golden-boy swimmer Jimmy (Jon Norman Schneider) and premed amateur guitarist Isaac (James Yaegashi) in tow, Boo-Seng commands a painfully awkward journey from southern Arizona to Durango, Colo. Along the way, the men of the Lee family mainly dig around and at each other. The secrets they uncover are not surprising; any audience member can likely guess them within the play's first 10 minutes. But the transparency suits Cho's clarion rendering. In Durango, as in life, outsiders have an advantage. It's always hardest to see the familial forest through the trees.
Cho's craftwork is so persuasive that it never becomes problematic that she hasn't so much written a play as a screenplay. With multiple locations, a road backdrop, and sequences of comic-book fantasy and folk-pop singing, Durango practically screams "screen me at Sundance." But deft, detailed performances (including by Ross Bickell and Jay Sullivan in multiple roles), seamless direction (courtesy of Chay Yew), and an impeccable physical production (sets by Dan Ostling, lighting by Paul Whitaker) place Durango well enough on stage. Still, if anyone's handing out production deals, get down to the Public: Julia Cho's giving a first-rate audition.
Presented by the Public Theater in association with the Long Wharf Theatre
at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., NYC.
Nov. 20-Dec. 5. Tue. and Sun., 7 p.m.; Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat. and Sun., 2 p.m.
(212) 967-7555 or www.publictheater.org.
Casting by Jordan Thaler and Heidi Griffiths.