Given that the potty-mouthed characters in playwright Chay Yew's Porcelain have little trouble posing a myriad of pointed questions --"Have you ever participated in toilet sex?" is fairly typical of the blunt-force dialogue--you'd think Yew's one-act play would be overflowing with tough-talking scenes of in-your-face drama. But as the playwright's examination of the evils of pop psychology, dangerous sex and unscrupulous media types unfolds, it becomes clear that the ninety-minute work is more propelled by the alchemy of suggestion than the power of confrontation.
The intermissionless passion play is being presented at the Theatre on Broadway under the assured direction of John Mandes. A chorus of four versatile actors (Chad Hoeppner, C.J. Hosier, Brian Houtz and Stuart Sanks) portrays a wide variety of English street characters, reporters, police and even a criminal psychologist on Mandes's spare set of black wooden cubes, a translucent backdrop and a prominent pile of miniature origami figures. It's a fitting arena for the bizarre tale of John Lee (Jared Walters), a Chinese expatriate who stands accused of pumping six bullets into William Hope, a man Lee met while cruising London's public restrooms.
For most of the drama, Walters sits center stage and folds red paper cranes to add to his growing collection. Clad in identical gray T-shirts and black jeans, the four-member ensemble alternately interrogates and interacts with Walters, whose focus remains fixed on an imaginary point just slightly above the heads of theatergoers. It's a wise, unobtrusive choice that keeps us from becoming preoccupied with unnecessary scene changes and extraneous physical movement. Instead we're encouraged to concentrate on the tenuous relationships that develop--in both forward and reverse chronological order--between the reticent John, his vacillating shrink, a bloodthirsty press corps, John's beleaguered father and the shifty William, whom John murders when William breaks off their sex-only relationship.
To their credit, the performers easily navigate the play's episodic structure and display an impressive command of Yew's rapid-fire dialogue. The actors' poetic delivery of a recurring folk story, "The Crow and the Sparrow," has the effect of unifying the fragmented drama's underdeveloped segments. Moreover, Sanks and Walters create a believable, subtly shaded dynamic as doctor and patient that sustains our interest during the production's weaker moments.
Occasionally, though, the playwright's deliberate avoidance of conflict and his gratuitous obsession with cliche vitiates this otherwise engrossing mystery. For example, as the play plods on toward its inevitable conclusion, we're suddenly introduced to one character's oddball fascination with the parallels between William's murder and the final episode in Bizet's Carmen. And rather than permit John a series of one-on-one, character-defining battles, Yew either stops short of the proverbial boiling point or, in one case, assigns John's anguished thoughts to lines spoken by chorus members. As a result, the play sometimes resembles a disjointed, average whodunit more than it does one character's painful, almost symphonic journey toward self-discovery. Nonetheless, on the strength of Mandes's intelligent direction and a host of fine performances, Yew's sometimes scatological myth about the recesses of the soul ultimately proves to be a trip worth taking.
Porcelain, through November 19 at Theatre on Broadway, 13 South Broadway, 303-860-9360.