John Steinbeck said from day one that his novel Of Mice and Men wouldn't make a terribly good play, and he was dead-on about that. The characters are solid, and the script won a Drama Desk award and stuff, but nothing captures California's Salinas Valley landscape like the prose in John's book. A stage version of Gone with the Wind just crashed in London after a mauling in the press. Epics, the critics correctly said, belong on film, where costume and set details have the best chance of shaping viewers' impressions. The stage may be the best place for the stories of our lives, but it doesn't always make the ideal home for material from other media.
So how did The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan's best-selling 1989 novel (which she turned into a screenplay four years later), make the grade as a live show? Chiefly, it has writer Susan Kim behind it—her adaptation is heavy on close-up intimacy, and she manages to advance the story and characters at the same time. San Diego's Asian-American Repertory Theatre, then, has found a good current entry in this script, and director Peter James Cirino has a nice command of the material. While some lackluster performances keep us at bay, this show has some qualities as a live journal about the conflicts between four young Chinese-American women and their moms and the shaky bond between the generations.
The 18 vignettes, set in present-day San Francisco, revolve around The Joy Luck Club, at which these women eat, tell stories and play Mah Jong for money. More important, the club is a forum for the older generation's dismay amid its inability to connect with its willful daughters. The moms, after all, gave up virtually everything and endured untold horrors to come to the States (one story involves the birth of a deformed baby, while another recalls the drowning of a young boy); by comparison, the well-fed kids' problems, which center on jobs and relationships, look unimportant.
The lightest fare features one of the show's best scenes, in which Rich (Robert Borzych) glad-hands his way out of his relationship with Waverly Jong (Tiffany Loui). He's foul, loud and ingratiating in front of Waverly's old-school parents, and Borzych transitions him beautifully after calmly assuring Waverly everything will go well. The good chemistry between Loui and Borzych, however, is at odds with some of the casting choices. There's a level of inexperience at work here, with many personnel placed in multiple roles that require hair-trigger changes in demeanor. The demands stretch them dangerously thin, framing the better performances in too bright a light. Elise Kim Prosser, for example, is excellent as Waverly's mom Lindo—but against the crush of inexperience, she inadvertently steals some of the show (compare that with an ending monologue so soft-spoken it's almost unintelligible).
Still, Cirino has crafted a good divisiveness between the generations, and Tan and Kim pull no punches in creating the interrelationships. There are plenty of heroes and villains to go around within each generation, and, for the most part, that variety sustains our interest. Besides, women usually go to the theater at a ratio of about 2 to 1, and those numbers may augur well for the rest of this play's run.
The Joy Luck Club is one of the better stage adaptations to come along—but for the greenish cast, this entry would have been a shining example of that.
This review is based on the matinée performance of Aug. 17. The Joy Luck Club runs through Sept. 14 at The Lab, The Academy of Performing Arts, 4580-B Alvarado Canyon Road, Mission Valley. $15-$20. 888-568-2678 or www.asianamericanrep.org.Write to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.