Language of Their Own: OC Register Review

Friday, April 13, 2007
Special to the Register

'Language' of identity, love

"A Language of Their Own" isn't Chay Yew's newest play, but it's certainly among his most elemental in its up-close look at the intertwining nature of love, desire, sexuality and identity.

That the play's themes are so universal may strike some as ironic in that its four characters are gay, with three of them Asian or Asian-American.

In the wrong hands, such material could be reduced to cultural or gender-preference stereotypes. Rude Guerrilla Theater Company's new production, directed by Aurelio Locsin, accents what makes Yew's characters unique – and, by doing so, brings out the 1995 play's dual qualities of humor and humanity.

"Language" opens with the end of a four-year affair between Oscar and Ming, two Chinese of opposite natures and temperaments. Having just learned he's HIV-positive, the analytical, methodical Chinese-born Oscar (Ruffy Landayan) breaks off with the more effeminate, American-born Ming (Nghia Luu).

In asides, Oscar and Ming share their thoughts about the nature of the relationship and the breakup: Which traits they dislike intensely, which they love madly. Oscar, for instance, organizes his world through labels, a quality the more spontaneous Ming loathes.

Ming tumbles headlong into an intense affair with Robert, a white headwaiter in search of a soul mate – preferably Asian. Oscar eventually settles into a comfortable pairing with Daniel, a fashion- and style-crazy young Filipino-American thrilled that his first love is an older man.

The cultural humor that pervades the first half of "A Language of Their Own" evokes roars of laughter, but we're also laughing in empathy of Ming and Oscar's experiences. One doesn't have to be Asian, or gay, to relate to either man, for Yew has found common ground for us all. With a sharp eye for the infinite details of all romantic affairs – before, during and after – the play lays bare this duo's fluttering hearts and innermost feelings, secrets, hopes and fears.

The second half moves into darker territory, introducing us to Robert (David Clark Smith) and Daniel (Dennis Tong). Robert showers Ming with affection and love – yet in his bitterness toward Oscar, Ming sabotages their affair. As AIDS ravishes his body, Oscar becomes more reliant upon Daniel as a caregiver.

Yew's point? It's a lot harder to put an end to any intense affair than it may at first seem – yet attempting to reunite as a couple, and reignite the spark, poses as many hurdles as moving on.

The meditative, poetic "Language" also looks at the excitement of any new relationship, the weight of self-image and shifting emotional and physical needs on any pairing and the pressures of assimilating into American society, with the specter of AIDS as poignant subtext.

Locsin's intuitive feel for the material guides his actors' body language. Yew's eloquent text is rife with short, sharp laugh lines, and equally deft dramatic jabs, and Locsin and company capture the former's laughs and the latter's visceral quality. As eloquent are Jessica Woodard's spare set, which incorporates a yin-yang pattern raised dais and simple yellow backcloth; Lindsey Suits' subtle lighting design; and Alton Cove's sensitive original music.

Landayan's Oscar and Luu's Ming allow us to see the complex mechanisms at work inside each man. Just watch, for example, how Landayan's Oscar politely grits his teeth while describing Ming's new love.

With his delicate features and expressive eyes, Luu communicates Ming's sensuality, catty sarcasm, deceptive ease in engaging in one-night stands and attendant loneliness. More crucially, he shows Ming's deep ambivalence toward love in a post-Oscar world. Landayan shows the more orderly, more inhibited and slightly geeky Oscar's underlying seriousness, his anxiety over losing Ming and the anxiety caused by facing ones mortality.

Smith and Tong give us different takes on the ecstasy of new love, with Smith showing Robert's intense craving for emotional connection and the stability of a monogamous commitment. His Robert can react only with disgust and disillusionment to Ming's insistence upon an open relationship.

Tong gets laughs in all the right places with his flamboyant Daniel, a sunny and seemingly superficial queen – but he also shows the young man's dawning awareness of his role in bringing solace to Oscar's bruised heart and body.

As intriguing as any aspect of "Language" are its many analogies between love and language. Yew likens the process of breaking off with one partner and starting anew with another to unlearning a native language while learning a new one – and, as Robert astutely notes, every happy couple has "a special language of their own that no one else can decipher."