Sam Chanse’s what you are now wants to be a play about ideas, about the science of memory and the therapeutic effect of storytelling and the way a legacy of trauma lives in the body. As a product of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, with its mission to fund works that broaden the public’s understanding of science and technology, it’s probably even obligated to be such a play of ideas. But it’s most successful when Chanse stops trying to explain the infrastructure behind what her characters think and feel; the more its characters describe scientific concepts and the psychological value of survivor testimony and the physiology of fear, the drier and the less grounded in human relationships and human experience the play becomes. And there is a deep well of human experience, of a family’s story, at the heart here–there’s just not enough of that heart in the play.
As the piece grapples with both intellectually challenging neuroscience and emotionally challenging memories of genocide, the less grounded Chanse’s storytelling is, the more the play feels like an earnest magazine article rather than a resonant piece of drama. Even the depictions of Cambodian culture–a description of a dance performance; an engagement with pre-Khmer Cambodian pop music in a way that can’t help recall Lauren Yee’s Cambodian Rock Band, a play that also sometimes felt burdened with its need to pack an education into its story–feel informational more often than inherent to the world of the play.
Pia (Pisay Pao), a biochemistry postdoc, is the daughter of a refugee from Khmer Rouge Cambodia; a brilliant scientist, Pia had hoped to escape the Cambodian expat community centered in Lowell, Massachusetts, where she grew up, but she’s afraid to abandon her troubled mother, Chantrea (Sonnie Brown), especially after her brother, Darany (Robert Lee Leng) leaves the area. Instead, she researches the possibility of rewiring the brain’s biochemical response to fear stimuli, detaching the emotional component of a memory from its cognitive content. She wants to use her science to fix her mother’s life, and thus repair the fragile bond between them. Siobhan (Emma Kikue), on the other hand, wants to offer Chantrea healing through storytelling; she works for a nonprofit taking testimony of the survivors of the Cambodian genocide. And Evan (Curran Connor), Pia’s labmate and sometime romantic partner, is the (narratively convenient) nagging reminder of everything Pia can’t figure out: he’s close to his family; he’s more successful at science; he’s willing to be open to a relationship in a way Pia is not; and he’s the skeptic who casts doubt on the value of her memory project to actually help Chantrea.
Those three characters carry the burden of the play’s extensive exposition, both in the present and in flashbacks, where Evan and Pia meet and where Siobhan, then a volunteer at the local Cambodian cultural community center, is dating Darany. They also represent the spectrum of American identity the play depicts, with Pia and her family, the refugee Southeast Asian family at one end; Evan, the white man from an upper-middle-class American family, at the other; and Siobhan, a half-Cambodian woman whose mother, an academic, left Cambodia before the genocide, uneasily in the middle.
Kikue, Connor, and Pao often seem constrained by the very literal way in which those positions are dramatized. So the piece comes most to life in the two characters who don’t carry any of that information for us, who also give the two strongest performances: Brown as Chantrea and Leng as Darany, born in Cambodia, raised in America, and trapped somewhere between an adolescence that saw him join a gang for self-protection and an adulthood that still seems out of reach. If Brown is all containment, Leng is all rangy energy. Brown gives Chantrea exquisite posture and an economy of movement that makes her every step feel measured, her every word precisely chosen. The heart of the play lies in a little gesture she uses, a light pat of her daughter’s shoulder that feels distant to Pia but full of love to Chantrea. Leng lopes and fidgets and slouches, putting on a performance of the American gangster aesthetic; but then his energy flares out in his words, which zing and pop when he gets excited. Darany often puts up a front of indifference and disinterest, but you can see through it to his smarts–and his excellent memory. And the piece also comes to life in the mirror images of Chantrea’s and Darany’s journey: Chantrea fled Cambodia, bringing Darany (she was pregnant with Pia at the time, so Pia is born in the U.S.) and making a life in Massachusetts, a place where Darany never quite finds his footing, and where he eventually ends up leaving, not entirely of his own choice. (Working at a donut shop, he is encouraged by Siobhan to apply for a better job, and then everything goes awry when they run a background check.)
I felt that Chanse’s previous New York production, Fruiting Bodies, struggled to find a coherent aesthetic in either its writing or its direction, and the same could be said here: there’s not a lot of energy or cohesion in Steve Cosson’s direction, with most of the scenes involving two characters either remaining static or engaging in fussy stage business (there’s a lot of packing and unpacking boxes–a metaphor for memory, perhaps, but not a very exciting one to watch–typing on a laptop, talking on the phone).
And while it continues to be a welcome development to see theaters’ commitment to increasing the diversity of their design staff alongside similar efforts with writers and actors, this production’s design aesthetic doesn’t feel coherent. The cool abstraction of Riw Rakkulchon’s stripped-down interior set may speak to the emotional void at the center of Pia’s home, but it’s neither specific enough to feel like any of the places it depicts nor neutral enough to shift location elegantly with a few props. (A late transformation is the most effective piece of design, and makes me wish that there was more play with the visual elements.) An-lin Dauber’s costumes also feel a little trapped between wanting to be specific enough to tell us something about the characters and being neutral enough to carry the play’s time shifts.
In the end, it turns out that Pia needs to understand her mother’s memories, not erase them, in order for them to gain a new understanding of each other. It’s a human connection, not a scientific miracle, that gets them through–and I wish the play had a little more of the human and a little less of the exposition in the rest of it.