Bodega Lung Fat
Inner City Productions
Hackney Empire Studio
In a row of stores in Brooklyn there's a Chinese restaurant called Lung Fat next to a shop selling alcohol, candy and sandwiches that calls itself a bodega. Two glazed frames on the set suggest we must be outside the shop fronts but the behaviour of their owners, sitting on plastic beer crates, make it seem much more like their back entrances. These are Chinese Charlie (or is he Vietnamese? his neighbour calls him a Gook) and Wheelchair, so called because he damaged his back when little and so spent time in a wheelchair, the Latino Spic who owns the bodega. They are joined by Sampson, who has known Wheelchair since they were kids when his mother used to help the young invalid. They are an ill-assorted trio who are joined by a strange outsider from the South side, a Hassidic Jew called Menachem, and later by a young woman in a NY Police cap who appears to be a meter maid and Sampson's girlfriend.
Batistick's play, which premiered with a reading at New York's Public Theatre in 2003 and here receives its first fully-staged production, gives us a glimpse into the lives of these people at what turns out be a traumatic point that raises some serious issues. It doesn't set out their stories, you have to piece together what you can from their conversations which show the author's ear for the sounds the authentic vernacular speech of these different ethnic groups.
Life is a struggle for all of them. Charlie, trying to establish himself in an American world, with his belief in the excellence of his cooking and that he speaks good English like a white man, is put-upon by others and uses alcohol to avoid facing up to things. Wheelchair seems to have some sort of sideline which appears to be drugs. Right through the play neither have any customers so, despite the windows, perhaps we are out back and they have assistants serving in the shop, perhaps we are out on the street and business is just that bad. Stephen Hoo's red-haired Charlie captures just that incomprehensibility of someone convinced they are talking clearly and never overplays the drunkenness but gives us in parallel increasing wooziness and confrontation while Pierre Mascolo's fast foul-talking Wheelchair combines a slightly awkward gait from his childhood injury with knee twitching, crotch-grapping, gesticulating energy.
When the play opens Sampson has been missing for some time, now he's back, his face bruised from a punch up he's had with a brother he's been visiting in New Jersey. But why had he taken off? It turns out he disappeared because he'd beaten up a policeman whom he'd caught violently assaulting a woman sexually. Though probably a whore, she seems to have been Sampson's former girl-friend. She also had relations with both Wheelchair and the Hassidic Jew, and he had joined in with Sampson to go to attack the policeman. Just to complicate matters the policeman happens to have been Sampson's current girl friend's brother! In this world George Georgiou's Menachem, with his locks and Hassidic dress, is like an alien from outer space; how did he come to be in the same bar, how did he come to know the woman or Sampson? Is he a junkie, Sampson his dealer and Wheelchair Sampson's supplier?
Daniel Frost's smooth, better-dressed Sampson, with his educated voice, seems bland by comparison with the others, much less interesting. The restaurant and the store give their proprietors a background and a reality but what does Sampson do? Why was he scrapping with his brother? We later learn that he is a devoted son tied to looking after a dying mother while Menachem has a terminally sick wife. This may seem like the surface of a sordid underworld of petty crime but the crux of the play is a discussion about euthanasia, while meter-maid Abigail, to whom Mitzi Thaddeus gives a muted gentleness that doesn't quite fit with flashes of feistiness, provides an opportunity for other considerations of duty and love.
This is a dark piece in some ways but also a funny one and Sam Neophytou's production is much more effective in developing the interaction and vitality of the characters and expressing their humour than in projecting any strong theme. In that it is reflecting the same problem in the script which, however good the writer's ear, takes too long to get on with offering plot or content, creating a vehicle to display character performances rather than getting to grips with the issues it eventually begins to raise. This is the second play by this American author that Neophytou and his company have presented, they clearly see a talent they connect with and their productions will help Batistick to nurture it if he is able to see them.
At Hackney Empire Studio until 28th March 2009
Reviewer: Howard Loxton