As its title suggests, Naomi Iizuka's 36 Views, currently playing at Geva Theatre Center, is a complex, richly layered drama.Actually, Iizuka's title comes from the name of the early 19th-century wood-block prints of Mt. Fuji by the Japanese artist Hokusai. And Iizuka segments her play into 36 varying scenes, separated by the sound of striking wood blocks.
The mysterious variations of her play are also reflected in the reference itself. Hokusai was only one of the names that artist used; he actually made more than 36 illustrations of Mt. Fuji; and he apparently altered the actual size and position of the mountain in his various "Views."
Iizuka's 36 Views deals with questions of authenticity: real vs. fake art, real vs. fake love. It is also about originality and the interplay between different cultures.
The problem is that almost none of this cleverly developed interplay of themes and ideas is remotely compelling dramatically. We find out far too early the answer to the central issue --- whether a potentially priceless, newly-found Japanese pillow-book, which is seemingly more than a thousand years old, is genuine. And the build-up isn't worth it for the final revelations: the actual source of superstar art collector Darius Wheeler's fortune, and the identity of a mysterious artist, who doesn't show up for an exhibit's opening, but does show up for its closing.
Ironically, what really does have dramatic force is the play's most obvious, trite, and intellectually unchallenging element --- the failed romance between Wheeler, a Caucasian, and Setsuko Hearn, the beautiful and brilliant Asian scholar who dazzles him.
At first, Harry Carnahan's Wheeler --- a macho, rich, white adventurer who discovers art treasures in the remote, perilous Far East --- is just sufficiently stereotypical to be intriguing, while raising our suspicions. But he and beautiful Maile Holck, as the poised, wary Setsuko, generate sufficient onstage chemistry to make their romantic attraction palpable and involving. Unfortunately, Iizuka shows no such skill in getting us engrossed in the more distinctive elements of her script.
Credit Daniel Ostling's set pieces, Lydia Tangi's costumes, and Mary Louise Geiger's lighting designs with providing Geva's production a handsome suggestion of the play's central image --- the beauty of Asian art.
Chay Yew is noted for his powerful ability to hold and fascinate an audience as a playwright. As director, he does what he can to flesh out Iizuka's ideas. Adapting minimalist Asian theater traditions to modern staging, Yew uses a bare stage, upon which the five actors are always visible, when not exiting to change costumes. His emblematic blocking makes use of ingenious lighting effects and simple set-pieces. The script requires a few beautiful examples of Asian artwork and some lovely traditional costumes, including elaborate kimonos and masks to be peeled off in a ritual that will expose surprising identities underneath. But Yew has eliminated the nudity and elaborate set changes which this play got in earlier productions, and I'm not sure that it doesn't need every such gimmick it can get.
Carnahan and Holck command the most interest, if only because their characters' interaction is the only element of the script that comes to life with flesh-and-blood vivacity. But the rest of the skilled cast is also commanding, even when their roles aren't. I'd give the rather wooden Elizabeth Adwin the benefit of the doubt, because her thin role as a journalist of sorts may be unavoidably smug as written. Melody Butiu achieves a nice transition from sullen servant to spirited artist. Gregory Patrick Jackson brings subtlety and a winsome appeal to the several transitions he has to negotiate as Wheeler's nerdy, brilliant assistant. And Alan Nebelthau plays a senior art professor with persuasive authority.
I can understand Geva's continuing connection with the brilliant Iizuka, giving her challenging works early readings and stagings here. They are rich in contexts and concepts. But I begin to doubt whether she is really a playwright who can make an audience in a theater give a damn about them.
36 Views,by Naomi Iizuka, directed by Chay Yew, plays at Geva Theatre Center, 75 Woodbury Boulevard, through Sunday, March 23. Performances are Tuesdays-Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 4 p.m. and 8:30 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. (special matinee performance on Wednesday, March 19, at 2 p.m.) Tix: $12:50-$46.50. 232-4382, www.gevatheatre.org.