There is a splendidly wicked episode midway through Act 1 of carried away on the crest of a wave, David Yee’s crazily ambitious new play about the after-effects of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. It takes place, not by the ocean, but at a radio station, where a mouthy Canadian shock jock (Richard Zeppieri), invoking the ironic spirit of Lenny Bruce, launches into a satirical song about the catastrophe.
The music is David Foster’s treacly Tears Are Not Enough, but the nasty lyrics are like something by Randy Newman at his most misanthropic. The chorus, addressed to the Asian victims, goes: “The tsunami came because God hates you all.”
When Zeppieri sang this charity-single parody on opening night, the audience in Tarragon Theatre’s Mainspace responded with nervous laughter. Here was a signal, if we hadn’t realized it yet, that Yee’s take on one of the world’s worst natural disasters was going to be dark and perverse.
Unfortunately, it also turns out to be one of the few really effective pieces in this string of tsunami tales. While Yee’s overlong, uneven play does on occasion live up to its title, sweeping us up in a compelling vignette or scenario, it just as often leaves us stuck on the shore, contemplating absurd and poorly conceived fragments like so much flotsam.
In his last play, 2011’s paper SERIES, Yee impressed us with his flexibility as a playwright, offering a collection of diverse but thematically linked sketches. Carried away… – directed, like paper SERIES, by Nina Lee Aquino – takes that approach further. Yee attempts to tell a wide range of stories, from the comical and folkloric to the poignant and tragic, and explore all kinds of human reactions to the disaster. He also touches on some of the different races and cultures caught up in the tsunami, which slammed the coastlines of 15 countries.
One of his shrewdest and funniest scenes is set in India, where a Roman Catholic priest (Ash Knight), who believes a miracle saved his basilica from destruction, tries to pick a fight with the easy-going Muslim engineer (Kawa Ada) hired by the Vatican to investigate his claim. In another brief scene, sweetly understated, a gruff man (John Ng) bonds with the little orphan girl (Eponine Lee) he has rescued.
More often, though, Yee gives us sad, desperate and ugly behaviour in the wake of the flood. There are two sordid episodes set in Thai brothels, one involving an amnesiac prostitute (Mayko Nguyen) and the other a grieving widower (Zeppieri), both of whom are taken advantage of. There’s the Chinese-American woman (Nguyen), whose whole family was wiped out by the tsunami, confronted by an FBI agent (Richard Lee) after abducting an orphan to replace her son. And finally, there’s the seismologist (Zeppieri) ravaged by guilt because he failed to warn the world about the earthquake that triggered the waves.
You appreciate Yee’s desire to steer away from the usual uplifting tales of heroism and sacrifice that the media feed us after a disaster. But it often feels like he’s trying too hard to go in the opposite direction. The darker the play gets, the more contrived it looks.
Aquino gives it an impressionistic production that uses water on the Tarragon stage the way Richard Rose’s Scorched used sand. Camellia Koo’s littoral set is ringed by a weathered boardwalk and backed by translucent plastic curtains, lit by Michelle Ramsay to suggest the looming grey walls of a giant wave. The floor of the stage slowly fills with water over the course of the show until the actors are sloshing about ankle-deep in it. Michelle Bensimon supplies an evocative aquatic soundscape. I have to admit, though, that the curtains and seeping water kept reminding me of an enormous shower stall with drainage problems.
Zeppieri is amusingly cranked up as the Howard Stern-type radio satirist, while Ng is powerful in a final monologue as a Burmese survivor. He gets to articulate Yee’s “we’re all connected” theme, which the playwright-actor could easily have borrowed from The Golden Dragon, the bravura Roland Schimmelpfennig play he appeared in at Tarragon last season. Nguyen gives the least satisfactory performances, especially as the woman who has lost her family – but then the awkward writing in that scene does her no favours. Eponine Lee, daughter of Aquino and Richard Lee, is charmingly natural as the little orphan. And her background presence in many scenes serves as a reminder of all the children killed or left parentless by the tsunami.
Carried away… clocks in at a bloated 21/2 hours with intermission. If Yee jettisoned its weaker sections he could probably get it down to a lean 90 minutes. A shorter wave would have a greater impact.
Carried away on the crest of a wave runs to May 26.