During the period following Chairman Mao’s 1966 Cultural Revolution in China and his death in 1976, the Communist country began to reopen to Western cultural influences and economic reform. But with those changes came an official demand for traditional morality, the advancement of “spiritual socialism,” and a law, enacted in 1979, to control both public and private immoral behavior, classified under the offense of “hooliganism,” with severe punishments that ranged from detainment to execution. Audible Theater’s world-premiere production of Good Enemy, written by Audible Theater Emerging Playwright Yilong Liu and now playing a limited Off-Broadway engagement at Minetta Lane Theatre, looks back on that conflicted time of optimism and tyranny in the early 1980s, from the perspective of a father trying to move beyond his past while repairing the fractured relationship with his college-age American-born daughter, who’s been told nothing about her parents’ life in their homeland, on a surprise cross-country road trip to visit her for her birthday.
Though the central themes of socio-political repression and atrocities, traumatic memories, and the lack of communication between a father and daughter are weighty issues, the enthralling show, under the consummately balanced direction of Obie Award winner Chay Yew, is also loaded with unexpected touches of humor that bring a fully rounded sense of relatability and likability to the characters and provide much-needed moments of relief from the horrors and estrangement they experience, as delivered by an outstanding cast of seven.
The narrative, interweaving the stories of two generations on two different continents at two distinct times, is presented in the non-linear format of a memory play. Scenes of Howard (the father), Dave (a prospective filmmaker and pot dealer who’s driving him from California), Momo (the daughter), and Jeff (the white boyfriend who lives with her in NYC), set in the spring of 2021, alternate with Howard’s haunting recollections of his 20-something self Hau (a rookie mole for the government), his commanding officer Xiong (a stern leader with an interest in helping him), and Hau’s future wife Jiahua (a free spirit who frequents a dance club under scrutiny, partially disrobes to swim in the river, and becomes the subject of an undercover investigation for “hooliganism”) in Southern China in the summer of 1984.
A minimalist monochrome set design by Junghyun Georgia Lee facilitates the clean transitions, and encourages the viewers to use their imaginations, as the story shifts to the different eras and locales, with a backdrop of three rectangular openings on a mostly bare stage, furnished with only rectilinear boxes (representing, among other things, Howard’s car), a set of steps at the side, and a central floor panel that opens to water below (suggesting the river), all enhanced by Reza Behjat’s expressive changes in lighting. The character-defining period-style costumes by Mel Ng and evocative sound by Mikhail Fiksel further help to transport the audience into the successive segments with efficiency and clarity.
Starring in the lead role of Howard is the ever-outstanding Obie Award winner Francis Jue, who captures the emotional and psychological damage of his past and his dilemma of wanting to forget, so he can lead an ordinary life in America, while also hoping to protect and to reconcile with Momo, who wants to know. His performance is filled with heartrending poignancy, laugh-out-loud humor, and profound love and humanity, as he sits to the side and watches his recollections play out before him, makes comical observations about the other characters and America, and pursues a connection with his daughter (who, he comes to recognize, has inherited much of the spirit of her mother). In the role of Hau, Tim Liu perfectly embodies the younger version of Howard, with all the budding qualities of his older self, along with his youthful uncertainty about his job and its mission, the devastating secrets that he can’t escape, his growing attraction to his “good enemy” Jiahua, and his bravery in standing up for her, their shared principles, and a future free from oppression.
Geena Quintos as Momo and Jeena Yi as Jiahua deliver their characters’ appealing zest for life and determination to be happy and liberated, and Ron Domingo as Xiong is as fierce in his dedication to the restrictive laws he enforces as he is stealthily steadfast to Hau, the protégé he has taken under his wing. Rounding out the across-the-board excellent cast is Alec Silver as Dave (who records the hesitant Howard for his future film) and Ryan Spahn as Jeff (the only character who doesn’t understand Mandarin), both bringing moments of tension and lots of laughs to the terrific show.
The world premiere of Good Enemy is captivating in every way, from its rounded portrayals and clear staging to its momentous story and message of the importance of human connection. If you can’t make it to the theater to see this highly recommended work, it will also be available as an Audible Original audio-play to listeners everywhere. Either way, don’t miss it.
Running Time: Approximately 95 minutes, without intermission.