Sunday, May 12, 2019

10 (2019-2020): THE BROTHERS PARANORMAL (seen May 11, 2019)

“A Ghost of a Chance”

Despite the increasing diversity among American playwrights, it’s still rare to see a work by a Thai-American playwright. In that regard, the Pan Asian Repertory’s introduction of Prince Gomolvilas’s The Brothers Paranormal is a welcome addition to the Off-Broadway scene. As would be expected, the play includes links to Thai cultural issues, which may be considered its most novel contribution.
The Brothers Paranormal. Photo: John Quincy Lee.
Otherwise, for all its good intentions, and despite the playwright’s having taken eight years to research, develop, and write it, The Brothers Paranormal is a conventional ghost story blended into a chunky, hard-to-swallow smoothie with too many disparate ingredients: the persistence of grief, funeral rites, the longing for home, cultural assimilation, marital affection, family bonds, gambling, guilt, the afterlife, the existence and nature of ghosts, and even the obsessions of one character for coffee and another for a recording of Ella Fitzgerald singing “Mac the Knife.”
  Vin Kridakorn, Roy Vongtama. Photo: John Quincy Lee.
The Brothers Paranormal is the kind of play that makes it hard to describe without giving away too many spoilers. Let’s just say that at its core are the ethnically Thai brothers, Max (Vin Vridakorn), born in America, and Visarut (Roy Vongtama), born in Thailand. They live in a landlocked Midwestern state where, seeking to get their family out of debt, they’ve gone into business as paranormal investigators aiming to debunk supernatural hoaxes. Max handles the business side, Visarut the technical. We’ll also meet their mother, Tasanee (Emily Kuroda), who appears to be living with, advising them, and offering background on Thai funeral customs.
Vin Kridakorn, Dawn L. Troupe. Photo: John Quincy Lee.
Neither sibling knows much about what he’s doing but they get hired by a woman named Delia (Dawn L. Troupe). This is largely because they're Thai as well as because Max allegedly has had his own paranormal experience as a child. Delia and her husband, Felix (Brian D. Coats), both of them African American, have moved locally after their home in New Orleans—to which Delia longs to return—was ruined by Hurricane Katrina.

She wants the brothers to rid her current place of the Thai-speaking female ghost who’s been scaring the daylights out of her and preventing her from sleeping. In one of the play's multiple implausibilities, she suspects the ghost is Thai because she sounds like the staff at a restaurant she and Felix frequent. (Next time you hear an Asian language you don't know spoken, see if you can identify it by what you've overheard at the restaurants you eat at.) However, Felix, a paramedic devoted to saving lives, is skeptical, and fears for Delia’s sanity. Naturally, he’s got a little learning to do.
Vin Kridakorn, Emily Kuroda, Roy Vongtama. Photo: John Quincy Lee.
Over the course of two, overly long hours, a few scenes provide the kind of superficial thrills we’re more used to in horror movies—the kind that influenced Gomolvilas’s dramaturgy—than in theatre. I admit to being briefly chilled by the scary sound (by Ian Wehrle) and lighting (by Victor En Yu Tan) tricks; the hands that seem to be pushing through a wall (special effects by Steve Cuiffo); the feral, cat-like, wall-climbing, female ghost (Natsuko Hirano) her face hidden by her long hair; and so on. Frankly, though, I’d be just as momentarily frightened by someone sneaking up behind me and saying “boo!”
Dawn L. Troupe, Brian D. Coats. Photo: John Quincy Lee.
When the characters are left to themselves, without the spectral intrusions, things can be dull and talky, with mostly colorless, ploddingly-paced direction from Jeff Liu and inconsistent performances (and Thai accents) from the cast, among whom Coats and Troupe offer the strongest work. The comedy is flat, the plot too similar to famous ghost movies, a leading character’s demise unmoving, and the explanations of paranormal phenomena insubstantial. Moreover, the distinctions as to which characters can see the play’s ghosts and which cannot is so fuzzy you begin to suspect that maybe all the characters are ghosts. 
Roy Vongtama, Vin Kridakorn, Dawn L. Troupe, Brian D. Coats. Photo: John Quincy Lee.
Sheryl Liu’s set, a bland, interior space whose two, unadorned, beige walls meet at an upstage apex, with a large opening at either side, serves for both the brothers’ and the couple’s residences. This results in it sometimes being difficult to determine which is which. And too much illusion-breaking time is devoted to dimly-lit scene changes as stagehands too visibly move things around.
Brian D. Coats, Dawn L. Troupe. Photo: John Quincy Lee,
In other blows to illusion, no better way to evoke ghostly exits has been devised than to have them simply walk off stage. We also have to accept that ghosts not only take naps but that the living can place throws over them to keep them comfy.
Dawn L. Troupe. Roy Vongtama, Natsuko Hirano, Vin Kridakorn. Photo; John Quincy Lee.
It’s good to know that there are Thai-American playwrights working to infuse our theatre with their plays, even if this production of The Brothers Paranormal isn’t an ideal example. Still, he play is scheduled for productions at several Midwest and West Coast theatres, so here’s hoping it will have more than a ghost of a chance in its future lives.

Beckett Theatre/Theatre Row
410 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through May 19