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Missteps in David Henry Hwang's story of Chinese immigrants

THEATER REVIEW: "Family Devotions" ★½ at the Halcyon Theatre

Chris Jones

August 17, 2011

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If there was one lesson apparent from "Chinglish," the Broadway-bound play from David Henry Hwang recently at the Goodman Theatre, it's that Hwang is a far better farceur than many people think. He might be known for his potent explorations of East-West relations, race and cultural politics, but he also knows that Americans and the Chinese are funny people. Especially when stuck in the same room. Or in the same body.

"Family Devotions," the last of a trifecta of plays by the author at different Chicago theaters over what some people are calling "the summer of Hwang," is an early and rarely revived Hwang play that deals with a very driven and successful group of Chinese-Americans. They're living out the American dream in Bel Air and, like most immigrants, trying to dwell in that sweet spot between the embrace of a new life and respect for the old. Hwang was only 24 when he wrote this clearly autobiographical 85-minute piece. It is not the equal of his best works. But as with all the plays that followed, it is a funny and compassionate piece of writing that involves people searching for identities among all the Californian comforts, even as their Chinese past keeps showing up at their front door.

"Family Devotions" is ripe for re-examination. Alas, the Halcyon Theatre production is a mess.

There are some decent actors in Jenn Adams' enthusiastic production — Mia Park, Eliza Shin, Gordon Chow and several others — but the show does not come with any of the directorial bite that farce requires. It's far too messy and confused.

This is, I fear, one of those shows that gets trapped in a well-meaning physical environment that actually prevents any kind of clear storytelling. It creates too many dead ends. The downstairs studio at the Greenhouse Theater Center is a tricky space at the best of times, and director Tony Adams' laudably ambitious but impractical and illogical setting is too much for the theater, or this production, to handle. You certainly don't feel like you're in Bel Air, or in the company of real people. Nobody in the cast seems to really know where to move.

When you add a variety of acting styles (many of which are too broad for the characters to be believable) and the lack of any rising tension overall, the production just does not do this play justice. One feels throughout like the focus was on the wrong things. The lesson here for Halcyon is to refocus on the core ideas of the work in hand, and on the forging of a credible comedic world occupied by vulnerable characters. It would have been better off here throwing all the stuff away and just letting Hwang's characters talk in imagined circumstances; we would surely have better believed in them.

cjones5@tribune.com

Twitter@ChrisJonesTrib

When: Through Sept. 4

Where: Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave.

Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes

Tickets: $10-$25 at 773-404-7336 or halcyontheatre.org