Chimerica

by John Stoltenberg

Lucy Kirkwood did not think up the word Chimerica—it was coined by a historian and an economist to name the combustably combined economies of China and the U.S.

But wowza did she think up a whiz-bang thriller of a play about it.

Chimerica the play—just opened at The Studio Theatre in a crackerjack production—runs three-plus hours, but it zips by like the theatrical equivalent of a page-turner. The dialog is so sharp and snappy, the storyline so gripping, the characters so specific and original, and the scope of its themes so epic, that Chimerica plays like an action flick of intellection, and brings the history we live in to dazzling life before our eyes.

Chimerica gets off to a factual start: the iconic photography from 1989 showing a lone protester taking a stand against one of the tanks that rolled through Tiananmen Square and quashed a pro-democracy demonstration the morning before. The media dubbed him the Tank Man, but who he was and what became of him has never been known. Jumping off from that image and that info gap, taking what she calls “an imaginative leap,” Kirkwood has devised a narrative peopled with American and Chinese characters, set back and forth in New York City and Beijing, and spanning more than two decades, all in 38 enthralling scenes.

Getting that sprawling story to sprint on stage, Director David Muse has placed and paced the play with extraordinary dexterity.  Scenic Designer Blythe R. D. Quinlan has created a marvelously multipurpose set—featuring upper and lower interiors and a turntable—that swiftly changes scenes. Lighting Designer Mary Louise Geiger and Sound Designer Matt Tierney have cued shifts of locale visually and aurally at a quick clip. And Projections Designer Zachary G. Borovay has turned the stark gray wall of Quinlan’s set into an ever unfolding panoply of places and events.

Kirkwood’s whip-smart script is handled by the cast with such expertise and nimble authenticity that I would watch and hear them play it again in a heartbeat. The main character is Joe (Ron Menzel), a news photographer whom Kirkwood imagines took a picture of that lone protester’s dramatic confrontation with that tank. The protester’s moral and physical bravery has touched Joe deeply. He can’t shake it. And so, some 20 years later, Joe sets out to track him down.

Watching Chimerica, one is always aware that Joe’s quixotic quest to find the Tank Man is the device Kirkwood is relying on to propel her suspense-filled plot. Which it does, brilliantly, and it stays stolidly in the driver seat even as the play rubbernecks wryly at a host of Big Issues—journalistic ethics, corporate marketing, the fact that “China has the whole country [the U.S.] by the pocketbook.” But unlike a McGuffin (the nickname Hitchcock famously gave his story gimmicks), Kirkwood’s plot device has an eloquent raison d’etre:  “People need to know that there is real heroism in the world,” says Joe.

Joe’s pursuit encounters a major obstacle when Frank, his assigning editor and boss (Paul Morella), wants the story spiked, and Mel, Joe’s fellow-reporter and buddy (Lee Sellars), sides with Frank. Joe’s pursuit becomes curiously complex when he gets an anonymized communique from Zhang Lin, a friend from his Beijing days (Rob Yang), exposing China’s cover-up of its lethal smog levels. And Joe’s pursuit takes a complicated romantic turn when he falls for Tessa, a marketing guru slash thoroughly modern vixen (Tessa Klein).

Doubling in supporting roles (Kirkwood’s expansive character list is as well-wrought as her play) are Julie-Ann Elliott, Kenneth Lee, Jordan Barbour, Diana Oh, Jacob Yeh, Kelsey Wang, and Jade Wu. The distinctions they each draw between their several roles are continuously impressive. Particularly remarkable in this regard is Jacob Yeh (whose portrayals range from young lover to sadistic guard).

In the character of Joe, Kirkwood has created the kind of complex and flawed hero one keeps thinking and talking about after. His quest to find Tank Man, as high-minded and idealistic as can be, coincides with, among other lapses, his using a skeevy tactic to obtain information from an elected official (Julie-Ann Elliott) and his being kind of dick in relation to Tessa. I loved the lifelike truthfulness with which Kirkwood made that all cohere, and Menzel’s command of the role is superb.

Kirkwood reportedly worked on this play for six years, and the breadth of her research in it is astounding. Her dialog crackles with insight and telling detail. The metastory in Chimerica—about the meaning of the discordant politics but merged economy between China and the U.S.—resonates on the sort of grand scale one rarely finds in live theater. Yet it is Kirkwood’s humanizing of her epic—how she has made it happen between and among completely believable and fascinating characters—that makes Chimerica a profound achievement.

Chimerica premiered in London and became a massive hit there, even though it has little to do with the U.K. and everything to do with the U.S. at this very moment. Studio Theatre now introduces Chimerica to America, where it most belongs. And what a pleasure to meet this play.

Running Time: Three hours 15 minutes, including one intermission.

Chimerica plays through October 18, 2015 at Studio Theatre’s Metheny Theatre – 1501 14th Street NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 332-3300, or purchase them online.

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