Mia Chung’s Catch As Catch Can is a truly ambitious work that flips the family play—and just about everything else—on its head.
The play begins with Roberta and Theresa gossiping like the working-class New Englanders moms you so often see spoofed in movies. Roberta complains that her son Robbie is still recovering from his divorce to a South Korean woman. She also expects that her daughter Daniela is going to get engaged to her nice boyfriend. Theresa has just found out that her son Tim is engaged to a Korean-American woman. This might sound like fairly typical off-Broadway fare—tackling cultural differences and racism—but it’s not.
First, the mothers’ confident statements about their children’s futures couldn’t be more wrong. But more importantly,Chung has each member of the three-person cast for play two roles, including one character of the opposite sex. There are no costume changes either. So the actors are tasked with making their two characters distinctive enough so the audience can follow which character they’re playing.
Cast members, Michael Esper, Jeff Biehl and Jeanine Serralles, are all equal to the task. You can tell when Daniela (Serralles) is walking into the room and when it’s her father (also Serralles) just by her change in posture alone. Director Ken Rus Schmoll steers the actors and the play masterfully by thinking about every single moment of the play and how it’ll be interpreted by the audience. There are so many potential pitfalls with this kind of a show. If the audience gets lost and isn’t sure who is who, they’re taken out of the story and the play’s message becomes muddled. Schmoll avoids these mistakes for the most part. The directing and performances reach their apex as the actors begin to rapidly switch back-and-forth from one character to the other during a chaotic Christmas party.
This show takes place in a typical domestic interior which has some unassuming wood-panels that slide on and off stage. Set and costume designer Arnulfo Maldonado’s panels shift the perspective and add depth and variation to a space. With each cinematic “wipe” of the stage, the actors reset the mood and setting. The panels also indicate something unsettled and unpredictable in the space, which the play mirrors.
About halfway through, Chung’s play takes a dramatic turn. This twist is jarring, but opens up a conversation about familial obligations, identity and what happens when you turn away from what you’re expected to do and what you’re expected to be.
The play is a Trojan horse in the best way possible. It subverts all of your expectations. Though there are bumps where the play handles its new direction clumsily. While everything happens very quickly with the situation at hand, the audience is left thinking “What did I just see?” This uncertainty is either a victory or defeat, depending on what Chung was trying to accomplish.
For this viewer, it was mostly a victory. Chung makes salient points about family connections and mental illness. Though, not all parts worked. During one particular scene, you completely lose sight of which character an actor is playing and how much time is passing while they’re speaking.
Overall though, Catch As Catch Can did something experimental and brave by upending the family living room play. It could have just been another Long Day’s Journey Into the Night or The Waverly Gallery. Maybe that’s not the standard we should set for theater, but it’s the reality of what often makes it to Broadway.
One of the most interesting but subtexual aspects of Chung’s play is that the South Korean ex-wife, Cindy, and the Korean-American fiancee, Minjung, never appear on stage. They don’t get any voices at all. But their absence is intentional. The audience just hears them disparaged in rooms that only white people occupy. They aren’t even referred to by name, often just “she.” Chung shows us the racism that happens behind closed doors in white spaces.
The audience might get some laughs out of Theresa’s awkward racial observations and then get slammed by Roberta’s overtly racist musings. The stereotypes Roberta attributes to these women are horrific, but the audience still laughs. Maybe they don’t even realize this reflex is happening. They’re all in a dark room, so they’re safe from judgement right? Everyone’s guards are down in this theater. Chung demonstrates that racist jokes are still funny to some people even in one of the most liberal cities in the world, which is chilling. This note might get lost in the madness of the rest of the play, but it’s as important of an aspect of Catch As Catch Can as the event that shatters everything.