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No-No Boy

  • Theater, Drama
  • 3 out of 5 stars
No-No Boy
Photograph: Courtesy John Quincy Lee

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

Theater review by Helen Shaw

The John Okada novel No-No Boy was one of those thunderclaps that come a long time after the lightning. Okada wrote it in 1957, but it wasn’t until the ’70s that it was rediscovered and widely read. Now it’s treated as a precious document: a rare, vivid insight into Japanese-American life after WWII. During the terrible days of the internment camps, young men were asked to serve in the military; some, either unwilling to fight a war against Japan or too horrified by their treatment by the U.S., answered “no.” Ichiro (Chris Doi) has been one of these draft deniers, and his return to Seattle is hardly a happy one. His deranged mother (Karen Tsen Lee) refuses to believe Japan lost the war; his furious brother (Tony Vo) hates him for being un-American; his friend (Eric Elizaga) is flying off the handle; his father (Dinh James Doan) has started to drink his problems away.

Director Ron Nakahara pares the story to the bone; his staging is ruthlessly simple, with the actors simply sitting on chairs in a half-circle, watching one another play. There are strong performances, particularly by the astonishing Lee, whose grief and confusion sometimes threaten to swallow the whole room. But Ken Narasaki’s theatrical adaptation has the same trouble as many stage treatments: a story of private contemplation becomes a string of episodes and loses its narrative voice. Everything in this No-No Boy is quick scenes, with characters who never have a chance to express an inner world and rollercoaster shifts that once took many pages to accomplish. The actors create moments of quiet for themselves when the staging won’t give them any, which is not a bad metaphor for Ichiro’s struggle to understand his changing motivations as a whole community watches. (Before he gets up for his alcoholic breakdown scene, Doan movingly lowers his head, as though blocking out the surrounding play with some furious inner storm.) But in the hope of making something exciting, Narasaki has compressed Okada’s book too much. The actors in Pan Asian Repertory Theatre’s production try to give it room and life again, but they only break the surface in shallow, gasping breaths.

Studio Theater at Theater Row (Off Broadway). By Ken Narasaki. From the book by John Okada. Directed by Ron Nakahara. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 30mins. No intermission.

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Written by
Helen Shaw


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