Theater review: 'Po Boy Tango' at Union Center for the Arts
Trust your tongue. That’s the takeaway from “Po Boy Tango,” the new East West Players production at the Union Center for the Arts in Little Tokyo. Eat well beforehand or make late dinner reservations, because Kenneth Lin’s exquisite kitchen confidential will definitely torture your taste buds.
Years ago, Gloria B (Esther Scott) used her soul food magic to heal the cancer-stricken daughter of Richie Po (Dennis Dun). Now his daughter is getting married, and Richie wants Gloria to reproduce the infamous Great Banquet, a lavish meal created by Richie’s late mother, Po Mama (Jeanne Sakata), who hosted a popular cooking show in Taiwan. In exchange for Gloria’s culinary forensics, Richie will help fund her dream of opening a Southern-style restaurant.
The cautious Richie has an extraordinary palate; the expansive Gloria never met a recipe she couldn’t improve. But both of these lonely people hunger for emotional satisfaction: Gloria worries over her troubled son, and Richie feels he betrayed his Taiwanese mother by marrying a Chinese descendant of the Kuomintang, whose repressive occupation of Taipei in 1947 led to a family tragedy.
On Shaun L. Motley’s kitchen set, the two argue over seasonings and knife sharpeners while taste-testing shark fin soup, drunken crab, and that sublime dish apparently unknown to Los Angeles, spoon bread. “Po Boy” celebrates the glory of food like no play in recent memory. Both watch Po Mama’s cooking videos — performed live by the masterful Sakata — in hopes of discovering her culinary secrets.
Despite his compassion for these characters, Lin has not found a graceful way of integrating the political content of the play into the moment-by-moment narrative; the racial tension between Gloria and Richie never quite convinces as much as their arguments about the morality of boiling crustaceans alive.
But the playwright has a very real gift for language, and some of the monologues here approach the evocative power of August Wilson. Po Mama’s cheerful memories of deep frying newborn chicks and Gloria’s stories of her family skinning a fresh alligator turtle may curdle some stomachs. But these rich tales speak to the primal power of food and family, a truth that transcends race, geography or tradition.
Scott and Dun make for an endearing odd couple.
Big in stature and personality, Scott brings an engaging physicality and warmth to Gloria, while Dun, compact and quirky, is the Felix of the pair. Director Oanh Nguyen teases out their dance of reconciliation with skill, although there was a little too much air on Oopening Nnight. A play low on explicit conflict needs to move quickly to stay ahead of the audience.
In Taiwanese, the common form of greeting is not, “How are you?,” but rather, “Have you eaten?” It is a question that acknowledges the appetite, in every sense, that drives all of us. “Po Boy Tango” pays sweet comic homage to both stomachs and hearts.
"Po Boy Tango," East West Players, Union Center for the Arts, 120 Judge John Aiso St., Los Angeles, 8 p.m. Wednesday - Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Dec. 6. $25-$35, 213-625-7000 www.eastwestplayers.org
Above: Esther Scott and Dennis Dun in "Po Boy Tango." Credit: Glenn Koenig/Los Angeles Times