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Review: 'Ixnay' at East West Players

February 20, 2009 |  2:00 pm

Ixnayateastwestplayers Heaven can and indeed should wait for “Ixnay,” Paul Kikuchi’s new comedy about reincarnation that opened Wednesday at East West Players. This lighthearted fantasy tells the story of a recently deceased young man who gets a second chance at life thanks to an executive order from the government in the sky. But it’s not the protagonist who needs another pass through the machinery so much as the script itself -- a broad mix of farce and clichéd identity politics that eludes coherence at nearly every turn.

“Ixnay” is set in a purgatorial afterlife that strangely resembles a Shinto shrine. Raymond (Aaron Takahashi) is a new arrival in the golden way station, having recently perished in a freak car accident. A smiling technocrat (Gedde Watanabe) expedites his files through the heavenly bureaucracy, putting Raymond on the fast track to reincarnation and upsetting his fellow souls-in-waiting.

But plans go haywire when Raymond refuses his new life if it means having to live again as a Japanese American. “I didn’t like it the first time,” he wanly insists, much to everyone’s frustration. Cue a protracted discussion of race, what it means growing up Asian American and the importance of being yourself.

Kikuchi’s play could never be accused of avoiding challenging themes but it mostly reincarnates old talking points and hoary stereotypes. The protagonist spends a lot of time whining about the pressures of overachievement and having strict parents. Like Woody Allen, his self-loathing can feel like an extreme form of narcissism. Only this bland hero lacks the hyper self-awareness that would have made his narcissism funny and engaging.

The rest of the cast amounts to a Benetton rainbow of Asian Americana. There’s a Filipino hip-hop freak (Dante Basco), a Chinese dentist (Matthew Yang King), an Earth-mother Samoan woman (Ellen D. Williams) and an elderly Korean society lady (June Kyoko Lu).

Their function is mainly to get Raymond to realize his self-worth, a rather thankless job that the talented ensemble cast manages to execute with grace and fleet-footed comic timing. In fact, any one of the supporting characters would have made a more interesting protagonist than the play’s nebbishy hero, who no doubt is supposed to represent the average man but comes off as merely average.

“Ixnay” advocates a broad-minded, quasi-post-racial outlook on life, but the play’s own approach to narrative and characters feels curiously circumscribed, evoking a world where people are stand-ins for their respective nationalities and talk only about racial issues.

One of the play’s more interesting -- and least developed -- characters is Norton (Matt Braaten), a young white man who is fascinated with Asian cultures and wants to be reincarnated as a Japanese American. His fetish for the Other is played strictly for laughs while Raymond’s identity crisis gets the high-solemnity treatment. The disparity suggests a lurking double standard that the play never gets around to acknowledging.

Capably directed by Jeff Liu, “Ixnay” moves along at a fast clip so plot contrivances and hokeyness don’t have time to completely sink in. Kikuchi, a first-time playwright, can write snappy one-liners when he isn’t tripping himself up with the complexities of race. Straight farce seems to be his real calling. Next time, he should ixnay attempts at ambitious themes and high philosophizing.

-- David Ng

“Ixnay,” East West Players, 120 N. Judge John Aliso St., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends March 15. $30 to $35. (213) 625-7000. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.

Caption: From left, Dante Basco, Aaron Takahashi and Gedde Watanabe in "Ixnay" at East West Players. Credit: Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times