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theatre review

Daniel MacIvor's new play at Buddies in Bad Times, Arigato, Tokyo, is about a confident middle-aged Canadian writer who goes to Japan only to be thrown for a loop. That might very well reflect MacIvor's own experience – the prolific 50-year-old playwright was inspired to write this tangled love story after a couple of Japanese sojourns. At any rate, it certainly describes his audience's reaction on encountering this odd, unsatisfying excursion to the inscrutable East.

Don't get me wrong: I applaud MacIvor for leaving his comfort zone at this stage in his successful career. Not only does Arigato, Tokyo dare to dabble in the intricacies of Noh theatre and classical Japanese literature, it is also the only time he's written a play for a drag queen. And when that queen, the sleekly androgynous Tyson James, first appears rocking an Amy Winehouse wig and platform heels, it promises an intriguing departure for the writer who gave us Marion Bridge and The Best Brothers.

Alas, the use of drag proves to be as half-realized as the Noh elements and references to the 11th-century novel The Tale of Genji. They combine to erect an awkward intellectual barrier that keeps us at a distance from this story about the mysteries of the heart. Awkward only in the playwright's conception, that is: Brendan Healy's production is as spare and eloquent as a haiku, and beguiles us even as we try to figure out MacIvor's tale.

The play begins with a Lost in Translation vibe. Carl (David Storch), a Vancouver-based author on a book tour, arrives at a Tokyo hotel and meets his young interpreter, Nushi (Cara Gee). There ensues a funny exchange concerning the various Japanese ways to avoid saying "no," which neatly encapsulates the cultural differences between the frank Occident and the discreet Orient. Carl is definitely your blunt Westerner. A jaded cynic, his philosophical writings boldly dismiss the existence of love. His wants are few, just drugs and sex. For the former, he prefers cocaine. For the latter, any old gender will do. Nushi, a fan who has read all his books, obliges and the two end up tumbling into bed.

Nushi also takes Carl to see a Noh play, where he is immediately infatuated with one of the masked actors, Yori (Michael Dufays), who turns out to be Nushi's brother. Carl falls hard for Yori, shaking his anti-love stance, but Yori confesses to more a more-than-familial bond between himself and Nushi, and reveals the extent of Nushi's obsession with Carl. It's all tied up, rather confusingly, with Murasaki Shikibu's The Tale of Genji, the saga of a nobleman's many romantic exploits. Nushi sees Carl as an embodiment of the novel's hero.

James glides in and out of the narrative in the traditional Noh role of the waki: Donning various costumes, he serves by turns as narrator, chorus and a transvestite nightclub singer named Etta who provides Carl with coke and sympathy. All three of MacIvor's Japanese characters talk in a stilted style, which proves a handicap for Nushi and Yori. They end up as mouthpieces for wisdom and information rather than complex human beings.

This is no fault of the acting. Gee and Dufays are convincing and, just from a physical point of view, the squat, muscular Dufays offers a playful contrast to the willowy James. Grey-bearded Storch is almost comical as the dissolute Carl. But he taps into the man's underlying sadness in a series of revelatory monologues, which cleverly take the form of public readings from his books.

Ultimately, this play isn't all that different from MacIvor's other works. Here are his favourite themes of sibling and parent-child tensions, his lyrical bent and his preoccupation with the meaning of love. Only this time he's hidden it all behind a cold, exotic mask. At one point, Nushi explains to Carl that "arigato" doesn't simply mean "thank you" in Japanese – it actually translates roughly as "it is a difficult thing." In his eagerness to pay homage to a foreign culture, MacIvor has made Arigato, Tokyo a more difficult play than it needed to be.