AS WE BABBLE ON Theater Review
Nathan Ramos’ As We Babble On is a mildly entertaining dramedy about five characters who aren’t anywhere near as edgy as they and their playwright fancy them and their one-acter to be. The lead character is - as his name Benji (a popular movie moniker for mutts) suggests - wishy-washy, one of those often ineffectual individuals who frequently shoot themselves in the foot. Compensating for his inadequacies, Benji (Will Choi) inks superheroes for a comic book company. But this doesn’t make up for his being self-sabotaging when it comes to work or re-encountering a former boyfriend, Vish (Sachin Bhatt, who is quite touching as a hunk who’s not as sure of himself as good looks might seem to guarantee one to be in our superficial society). Having a weak protagonist does not bode well for a play.
Laura (Jaime Schwarz) is a high IQ barista who is extremely creative and half-Caucasian, half-Asian (I believe Thai, if I remember correctly). At the café or wherever she works Laura hooks up with Asian-American Orson (Bobby Foley of Hawaii, who has studied at Yale and the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts), and in one of the play’s false moves, he just so happens to be a billionaire. Ramos may believe he’s writing a pushing-the-envelope work about cutting edge characters who aren’t “mainstream” white heteros, but he tips his hand by making Orson a charter member of the 1 percenters, in the same way Bridget Jones’ job as a newscaster belies the claim that she’s just an everyday lass.
Babble’s fifth wheel - uh, I mean character - is Sheila (vivaciously played by Jiavani Linayao), who is described as “Blasian” - part-Black, part-Filipina. Benji’s roommate, Sheila operates a website out of their apartment that blends a foodie vibe with some sexuality for its hundreds of thousands of UMVs. (If I understood correctly, “Babble” is supposed to be an online platform, portal or app.) In what is probably Babble’s funniest scene, while the two other aforementioned couples get it on, chef Sheila has slapstick sex with dough while she is baking bread. The writing isn’t sharp enough to sexually delineate Sheila, but Producing Artistic Director Snehal Desai explained to this dimwitted scribbler that her character was meant to be “pan-sexual.” (Which, given the fact that “pan” means bread in Spanish, is pretty funny, considering her doughy romp.)
The problem with Sheila typifies Babble’s pretentiousness. On the one hand, in Yankee Doodle-Land, mixed Asian and Black characters are rare onscreen and onstage, and it is East West Players’ forte to expand these conventional ethnic boundaries. Unfortunately, although Linayao’s Sheila is Babble’s most enjoyable character, her African-American side came across to this Caucasoid critic as caricaturish, as cartoony as one of the characters Benji draws for comic books. Sheila is loud, pushy, aggressive and so on, the way Black women are unfortunately all too frequently stereotyped by non-Black writers (such as Nathan Ramos, who - according to Angry Asian Man - is part Filipino and Korean, or what he - not me - called “Koreapino”). Just as I can’t speak for Blacks I can’t put words into the mouths of feminists, but some may look askance at this male would-be bard’s ability to authentically depict the females of the species.
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I can however speak authoritatively from personal experience about another aspect of Babble, which is supposedly set in New York City. However, there is absolutely nothing that captures my hometown with any authenticity whatsoever. Babble totally misses the vibe of the city that never sleeps. As somebody who was born and raised in New Yawk Fuckin’ City, it was obvious to me that Babble was written by a babbler who is from nowhere near Brooklyn or Manhattan - Ramos told AAM that he’s “from a town called Strongsville, half an hour south of Cleveland.” Well, talk about what New Yorkers used to call “the bridge and tunnel crowd!” Scenic designer Tesshi Nakagawa’s generic apartment building could be anywhere - there was nothing especially NYC-like about it. I never once, for a single solitary second, felt like or believed I was back home during a play that could only be one act because there wasn’t enough material for a second act.
What I did like about Babble was how director Alison M. De La Cruz, projections designer Sheiva Khalily, Nakagawa and Ramos imaginatively endeavor to render social media and comic book conventions on the stage. I’ve seen this done onscreen but this may be the first time I’ve experienced this in live theater - or at least to this extent. The final image, which visually expresses how Benji envisions the quintet, is lovely. Kudos to EWP for its innovative, re-visualizing of the theater medium and experience by creatively incorporating these techniques. (However, some of the projected Tweets or Facebook postings or whatever need to be reformatted because some of the sentences are cut off.)
A word about Bhatt’s sensitive portrayal, which led me to believe Vish was an Islamic character. At the after party Bhatt set me straight, noting that Vish was Indian (although the subcontinent actually has a huge Muslim population, I took it to mean that Vish was Hindu). Bhatt explained that post-9/11, Vish became overprotective because even though he wasn’t Islamic, any brown person was suspect in Islamophobic America after Sept. 11th - and being at Ground Zero in NYC amplified this anxiety.
Babble is the second L.A. play that opened within days of each other that deal with the theme of the intersectionality of ethnicity, class, sexuality and sexual preference. The other play is Rogue Machine’s fact-based Mexican Day, which includes historical figures such as African American civil rights organizer Bayard Rustin and crusading journalist Hisaye Yamamoto, an American of Japanese Ancestry. While Mexican Day’s characters are committed to the cause, all Babble’s dramatis personae do is babble on about racial inequities. It is a dramedy without a remedy. Thus, Babble’s rabble remains stuck in a bubble - albeit an amusing one with some trendsetting 21st century stagecraft.
The East West Players and the Los Angeles LGBT Center co-present the world premiere of As We Babble On Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. at East West Players, David Henry Hwang Theater, 120 Judge John Aiso St., Los Angeles, through June 24. Info: www.eastwestplayers.org; (213)625-7000.
L.A.-based reviewer/historian Ed Rampell is co-presenting “Marx @ 200: The Marxist Movie Series”(https://www.gofundme.com/marx-200-the-marxist-movie-serie). The third edition of “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book”co-authored by Rampell is now available at: https://mutualpublishing.com/product/the-hawaii-movie-and-television-book/ .