Haunted Houses in “Catch as Catch Can” and “A Delicate Balance”

The whole point of writing about theatre is to make a production come alive in front of the reader’s eyes: description is the critical ballgame. So I’m a little frightened to admit that, even though I’ve seen the superb “Catch as Catch Can” twice—first in 2018, when it played at the New Ohio, and now again at Playwrights Horizons—I still find a crucial part of it indescribable. In the simplest terms, Mia Chung has written a drama with six characters and only three actors, and the resulting double-casting (two sons play their mothers, a daughter plays her father) leads to deliberate visual and narrative slippages. What’s inexplicable is the show’s eerie, ice-skating structure, the way it uses the production’s liquid identities to create a kind of hydroplaning perceptual effect. There are no disguises and no costume changes—but somehow “Catch as Catch Can” is terrifying because it makes everything seem like a negotiable reality. Are you sane? Are you even a distinct and separate self? Your level of confidence in your answers to those questions might change as “Catch” goes on.

Naturally, it starts with comedy. When the lights come up, we see a kitchen, with two men (Jon Norman Schneider and Rob Yang) having a natter over cookies. They’re doing broad imitations of white women from what the script identifies as “Working class New England,” which means they’re using thick Brooklyn-Jersey-Tarrytown accents (think Linda from “Bob’s Burgers”), hand gestures that keep the wrist high, and big eyerolls. It takes a moment to realize that the men are not doing a bit; they are playing a pair of close friends, Roberta LaVecchia and Theresa Phelan. They are these women, despite the actors’ regular-guy clothes.

Amid the gossip, Theresa (Yang) reveals that her son Tim is moving back home after eleven years in California. She’s thrilled, if flummoxed, by his out-of-nowhere engagement to someone named Minjung. Roberta (Schneider), still bitter over her own son Robbie’s failed marriage to a Korean woman, provides “expert guidance” in the form of vicious anti-Asian racism: “There’s gotta be a reason you can order them by mail,” Roberta snarls, as Theresa nods. The same two actors play the respective adult sons Tim and Robbie, who reunite, a little awkwardly, with Robbie’s sister Danielle (Cindy Cheung). No one takes Dani seriously, apart from her loving, bluff father, Lon (also played by Cheung); no one sees that she might not want the marriage-plus-kids future the others want for her. Chung specifies that the show, written about white families, “be performed by an all-white cast or a cast that is all of East Asian descent.” The latter choice, taken here in a production beautifully directed by Daniel Aukin, leads to further slippages, multiple meanings, and disorientations.

At first, the two generations stay in separate scenes, but as the play goes on we learn to understand which part a person’s playing and the roles begin to intersect—if Cheung tucks her chin and starts hitching at her pants, she’s Lon LaVecchia; if Schneider grabs a beer, he’s the easily riled Robbie. Eventually, in a bravura sequence that has the characters setting up for a party, all three actors move seamlessly between their roles right in front of us, arranging the boxed-wine station and Christmas lights, while toggling, willy-nilly, between identities. The play hits its comic height here, particularly when Schneider both races around panicking about Roberta’s pasta buffet (“Oh my god, the shells!”) and comes in late, sulking, as Robbie. Mother and son—both have issues with timing.

Yet close on this scene’s heels comes the show’s great aria, which takes the script’s hints of sourness and distills them into bile. Alone in a spotlight, Yang plays both sides of a conversation between laconic Tim and verbose Theresa, with the latter talking past and around her deeply troubled son. Yang peels himself raw for us in this and a later, unbearably intense, scene: Tim’s shuddering vulnerability entwines with the tremulous, petulant voice Yang has chosen for Theresa, and the two characters set up a terrible vibrating resonance inside the same body. Tim begs to go to the hospital, but Theresa won’t pay attention, or perhaps he’s no longer speaking in a way she can understand. “You need to fly to the moon? Why would you need to do that, sweetheart?” Theresa asks. Tim might as well be talking to himself.

Chung, despite her own laserlike precision, is interested in permeable boundaries: the membranes between reality and irreality, pushy parent and yielding child, sanity and illness. Nothing is truly independent: Robbie’s marriage was destroyed, he says, by the way Lon and Roberta treated his wife, and Tim’s imbalance, possibly an inheritance from his long-dead father, has been ignored by an avoidant and preoccupied Theresa. Chung particularly focusses on the way that poison—specifically racism—can soak through these selective, fleshy, familial barriers, an idea illuminated by her directions on casting. What does it mean to embody a character who hates you? Is that cost higher or lower than letting someone else embody that for you?

I wish I could give a sense of how perfect “Catch as Catch Can” is, how deft it is at capturing first our attention (wait, what is going on?) and then worming its way into senses deeper down. Quoting it will not help, though, since the effect lives only in performance. Chung infuses her play with poetry, but she’s not especially lyrical; rather, her tools are placement, juxtaposition, and enjambment. Events move forward in an unpredictable and realistic way, so that a conversation will follow the casual, no-hurry pace of regular talk, only for the desperately important things—marriages, hearts, minds—to break without warning. The part-switching and the two-hour (no intermission) running time set any theatre a serious challenge, but both of the productions I’ve seen have met it: Ken Rus Schmoll’s excellent one in 2018 (with Jeanine Serralles, Michael Esper, and Jeff Biehl), and now Aukin’s deft and elegant staging with this tremendous ensemble. Both times I felt an electric sense in the audience for “Catch,” the certain knowledge I’m in the presence of a new classic, a play that will have a long, long life.

Manu Narayan and Mia Katigbak in “A Delicate Balance.”Photograph by Carol Rosegg

Casting around for comparisons for Chung’s achievement, I could only come up with Edward Albee—another American diagnostician of the underside of the American family, another writer who can use aspects of realism to destabilize an audience’s sense of reality. It’s therefore useful that the Transport Group and the National Asian American Theatre Company are currently staging his uncanny, Pulitzer Prize-winning “A Delicate Balance” down at the Connelly Theatre—you can go and compare their tragic visions for yourself. There is certainly ground for comparison: both plays contain fading, troubled children and their vigorous, callous, unruffled parents; both contain a sense of the overwhelming dark, an abyss at the top of the stairs.

“Balance” is my favorite of all Albee’s plays. A crisp, sophisticated, Waspy family bent on its own alcoholic embalming is suddenly invaded by a couple who have got—and they cannot be more specific—scared. These friends arrive looking for a place to rest, but they find that friendship does not entitle them to much, certainly not protection against something as contagious as fear. “Balance” contains one of Albee’s mightiest female characters (which is saying something): Agnes, the fulcrum on which the family rests. She is unforgiving, funny, pompous, canny, and cruel—the most recent Broadway revival featured Glenn Close in the part. Jack Cummings III’s production contains great physical loveliness (Peiyi Wong’s set consists of a massive staircase and a platform that seems to float above a crowd of brandy snifters and crystal glasses), but there are infelicities in some of the performances. It does, though, have Mia Katigbak playing Agnes, and that’s reason enough to go. Katigbak, one of New York’s greatest theatrical treasures, enters at one point in a floor-length red shirtdress, which makes her look a little like a cardinal, delivering some papal bull from Rome. She glides through this distressing play as if she’s got her mind on Heaven. She ices your blood, though, so odds are, her power comes from the other place. ♦

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