It seems like a childish competition between two men, each trying to show off his toughness in front of Grace (Meghan Kreidler), the woman they’re wooing. But, in truth, it’s not a contest at all at the restaurant table where all three sit.
One of the men, Steve (Randy Reyes), is really Guan Gong, self-described “god of warriors, writers and prostitutes.” He has taken the form of a student from Hong Kong to see how his reputation is faring in America.
Dale (Michael Sung-Ho), is preppy, with a fancy sports car and disdain for those he thinks of as “greasy” newcomers. When Steve and Dale pour gobs of hot sauce onto each other’s food, Dale coughs and chokes, while Steve calmly and conspicuously chows down his noodles, hoping that Grace notices his divine tolerance.
Mu Performing Arts is serving up some hot spice with its production of “FOB,” David Henry Hwang’s restaurant-set play that opened over the weekend at Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis. (The spice is both literal and metaphorical; a Twin Cities restaurant is offering tasty noodles and veggies in the lobby before the show.)
“FOB” explores the intra-cultural tensions between “fresh-off-the-boat” Chinese-Americans and ABCs (America-born Chinese) who don’t want to be reminded of their origins. The well-acted 70-minute one-act offers a relatively straightforward exploration of complex biases within a misconstrued and sometimes stereotyped cultural group.
Reyes does double duty on “FOB,” admirably directing and starring in it. He is an impeccable actor, who has found a way to make a hand gesture that serves as a kind of three-dimensional ideograph for Guan Gong. Whenever he says this name, he goes into an honorific posture.
Kreidler, too, plays a character with a mythic foil. Her Grace sometimes transforms into Fa Mu Lan, the warrior figure who is best known in America as a Disney cartoon. The actor brings distinct attitudes to each role. She gestures subtly as Grace, who is curious about Steve but can’t stand his commanding, even sexist ways. She is commanding as Fa Mu Lan, wielding a sword and showing her strength.
Sung-Ho has perhaps the most difficult role in “FOB,” as it’s woefully underwritten (“FOB,” which won an Obie in 1980, was Hwang’s first play, and he wrote it while an undergraduate at Stanford). Sung-Ho’s Dale is cheerfully dismissive of his rival. The things he says about FOBs can’t be said by non-Chinese without eliciting charges of racism. And yet the actor makes us understand his actions, even if we don’t like Dale all that much.
The telling of “FOB” is aided by the simple design. Sarah Brandner’s spare set includes three screens, chairs, and a small table, while Soren Olsen’s lights switch between earthly and red-hued mythic realms.
While “FOB” remains relevant — many people struggle to be judged for who they are as individuals instead of as part of a group — the play is still clearly an early work, even as it shows the promise of a playwright who went on to write “M. Butterfly.”