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LA Theater Review

Po Boy Tango

Kenneth Lin's flawed but potentially worthwhile play has three things going for it in its present state: the transcendent performances of Esther Scott, Dennis Dun, and Jeanne Sakata. Still, it's difficult to imagine why this esteemed company and director Oanh Nguyen chose to embrace this fragmented and unfinished piece. It isn't an uninteresting play. It's just way too long, glaringly unable to choose a through-line until deep into Act 2, and so full of interminable scenes rolling ice cream in rock salt, explaining Chinese cooking techniques, and offering a lengthy tutorial on how to sharpen knives with a wet stone, it could cause a hungry man to lose his appetite.

Richie Po (Dun) is a Taiwanese immigrant raised in the sternly loving shadow of his mother (Sakata), a famous Chinese cook whose popular TV show has been translated into English for American audiences. Po Mama, as she was known, has recently passed, and the airplane-phobic Richie has stayed behind while his wife and daughter travel to Taiwan for the funeral. He sits in his kitchen late at night watching DVDs of his mother's show, as well as private tapes she sent him.

Scott plays Gloria B, a nurse who a decade earlier attended Richie's daughter as she battled cancer but was mysteriously dismissed when the girl beat the disease. Now summoned to the Po home to discuss going into the restaurant business with her estranged former employer, she and Richie spend much of two acts cooking and taking an excruciating amount of time getting to the point: the strain between them resulting from his Asian heritage and the blackness of her skin. "Don't you know," Gloria asks in the play's most important eleventh-hour scene, "color is the only thing that makes a person real in this world?"

Scott and Dun are heartbreaking in this confrontation, but it is too little, too late. Sakata is also glorious as Mama Po, seen only in flashbacks on her tapes, but has little to do with the story. Lin possibly had wonderful memories of some ancient grandma and loved growing up eating shark-fin soup, but his nostalgia drags down what could have been a knockout one-act.

Presented by East West Players at the David Henry Hwang Theater, Union Center for the Arts, 120 Judge John Aiso St., L.A. Nov. 11–Dec. 6. Wed.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.  (213) 625-7000.

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