Theater review by Melissa Rose Bernardo
A generation gap becomes a generation gulf in Yilong Liu’s ambitious, time-hopping Good Enemy. Howard (the inimitable Francis Jue), a Chinese immigrant to America, lacks a strong bond with his only child, college student Momo (Geena Quintos). They live on opposite coasts—he in Southern California, she in New York—and the pandemic has only exacerbated their emotional disconnect. He doesn’t understand her world: the protests she attends, the TikToks she makes. Conversely, Howard’s formative years in China are a total mystery to Momo. “Who were you before you were my dad?” she asks, but Howard has closed the book on that period—literally. (There is an actual book, and it later comes into play.)
Commissioned and produced by Audible, which will also release an audio recording of it, Good Enemy toggles back and forth between 2021 America and 1984 China with relative ease. Yilong relies on another character—Dave (Alec Silver), a pot dealer and aspiring screenwriter who is chauffeuring Howard cross-country to see Momo—to kickstart the flashbacks. Dave hopes to sell Howard’s story to Hollywood and, perhaps intentionally, the China scenes do seem big-screen ready. Hao (Tim Liu), a rookie police officer tasked with rooting out corruption—loud music, suggestive dancing, Western-influenced discourse—slips into an underground club, where he meets a self-possessed young woman named Jiahua (Jeena Yi). She slips him bootleg Joy Division cassettes, tries in vain to teach him to dance and, in a secluded spot at the river where the sky shimmers just so (thanks to Reza Behjat’s painterly lighting), she shows him how to swim. Less convincing is a chaotic gun struggle/hostage/speeding car sequence involving Jiahua, Hao and his commanding officer Xiong (Ron Domingo).
Reunited with his Cambodian Rock Band director Chay Yew, Jue proves a perfect anchor for the play, guiding it through even its bumpier moments. He has a lovely and believable dynamic with Quintos (with whom he also appeared in 2019’s Soft Power) and he gives Howard heart, humility and a generous dose of humor. Howard’s exchanges with Momo’s self-professed “woke white dude” boyfriend, Jeff (Ryan Spahn), couldn’t be more ridiculous—think Google Translate at its worst (“I…I listen…she…um…talk…you…electric…words”)—but they yield more than laughs. The two characters who share no language wind up making the play’s easiest and most natural connection.
Good Enemy. Audible Theater at Minetta Lane Theatre (Off Broadway). By Yilong Liu. Directed by Chay Yew. With Francis Jue, Tim Liu, Geena Quintos, Jeena Yi, Ryan Spahn. Running time: 1hr 45mins. Through November 27.