Since "Shimada" is, in part, about the memory of a voice, I should probably declare that the voice of Mako, the Japanese actor, has very resonant associations for me. He was the narrator of "Pacific Overtures," the Stephen Sondheim-Harold Prince musical about the collision of East and West that remains one of the most profound theater experiences of my life.
Here, Mako plays "Shimada," a Japanese businessman who has come to Australia to take over a bicycle company. The sound of his voice is so distinctive that it brings back traumatic memories to one of the partners in the concern, Eric Dawson, who knows that the well-dressed businessman is the same man who'd been an oppressive overseer in a World War II POW camp. He was responsible for the death of one of Dawson's close friends. The sound of Mako's voice and a tableau of Japanese business logos that reminded me of the brilliant final number of "Pacific Overtures" might have predisposed me toward "Shimada," but I'm afraid the play's simplistic treatment of its large themes would defeat the best will in the world.
"Shimada" is, in some sense, a victim of Broadway economics. This Australian play was co-produced by the Japanese (and marks the first Broadway show with simultaneous translation and program notes in Japanese).
Japanese participation made it inevitable that this be a Broadway production rather than something more intimate. Putting it on Broadway necessitated stars, and, alas, none of the stars seem as comfortable in his or her role as the younger actors.
The younger actors, for example, handle the Australian accents with aplomb. Ellen Burstyn, who plays the widow of one of the POW founders of the bicycle company, makes intermittent stabs at an Aussie accent. Estelle Parsons, the feisty union leader in Burstyn's plant, comes close but often sounds cockney. Ben Gazzara, the POW survivor who opposes the Japanese takeover, does not make his accent convincing.
Such petty details wouldn't matter if the play were stronger, but Jill Shearer's drama is extremely mundane and predictable. The only things that give it interest are occasional glimpses of classical Japanese theater between the scenes. The lush costumes and highly stylized movements provide a welcome contrast to the otherwise drab proceedings.
It is hard to see why Burstyn took the role of the factory owner, which allows her little opportunity to use her talents. Parsons' character has some earthy humor, but it too is not very subtly written. Gazzara has moments of emotional fireworks, but the character is too sketchily drawn to be of interest.
Robert Joy is strong as Burstyn's aggressive son. Tracy Sallows plays a paper-thin character with a certain flair. The most exciting work of the evening is that of Jon Matthews as one of the POWs. Mako handles his task capably, as does Ernest Abuba, as two Japanese soldiers.
Tony Straiges' simple set is an effective frame for the action. Judy Dearing has costumed the Japanese interludes handsomely.
Imagine. It is Australia right now. You have helped build up a bicycle factory which, while once successful, has fallen on hard times. A Japanese company offers to take it over. A grave and courteous Japanese businessman arrives eager to do business - yet something about this man strikes you as familiar, even over-familiar.
Forty-seven years have passed since you and your now-dead mate, Clive, who first had the dream of bicycle-building, were prisoners in a savage and steamy Japanese POW camp in a Burmese jungle during World War II - and now this takeover envoy reminds you of a camp guard, who sadistically tortured you and your friends.
Is he or isn't he? That is the first question posed by Jill Shearer's sadly inept Australian play "Shimada," which opened at the Broadhurst Theater last night.
It is not the last, for this is more than an exercise in long-term memory, it is also a discussion of Japan, or rather Japanese business, and its role in first Pacific and then world economy, and it also raises the Western issue (be we Australian or American) of Japan-bashing. To bash or not to bash?
The play is pretty awful. It starts with an almost-execution in the POW camp, and from there on in the playwright treats us to scenes and images from the past playing on the hero Eric Dawson's mind like a berserk video machine - probably a Sony.
After this scene of brutality, we are offered dry pages of exposition, as the economic situation of this "over-stocked and under-capitalized" company is painfully established, and the Japanese merger - they want to use it to market "dirt-bikes" - devised by the founder Clive's widow with the approval of her son, is explained.
Eventually Eric, who earlier refused to become a partner and remained as salaried sales manager, instantly comes up with an alternative plan that could save the company. But perhaps it is too late.
Tension, conflict - even the resolution seems murky, and the stilted dialogue hangs over the play like miasmic mist, although everyone, apart from the aged samurai businessman, gamely tries to talk in a dialect of Crocodile Dundee. Even this doesn't invest any authenticity in a play that disconsolately wanders nowhere through all the thickets of a possibly viable drama that the playwright was unable to write.
In fact, had she been able to write "Shimada," I somewhat doubt whether the New Zealand director, Simon Philips, would have been able to direct it, for here he has such splendid actors as Ben Gazzara as Eric and Estelle Parsons (as a gung-ho union rep) actually floundering in the play's whirlpool of mediocrity, while other fine actors, such as an impassive Mako, an almost equally impassive Ellen Burstyn and a perkily hysteric Robert Joy, sink without much trace.
Apparently this unwitting contribution to Western/Japanese misunderstanding has been helped with Japanese capital, and not only is the Playbill (here's a first) printed in Japanese as well as English, but I understand that plot summaries in Japanese are available by earphone.
I would imagine most visiting Japanese would have said: "Bring back 'Oh! Calcutta!'." But perhaps I'm prejudiced. As Gazzara has to say at one point: "Didn't Clive tell you what Shimada did to him?" Don't worry, Ben, the full horrors are safe with me.
"Shimada," a new Australian play at the Broadhurst Theater, opens with a secretary receiving a Federal Express envelope and ends with the secretary answering her phone. ("Beaumont Bicycle Company, can I help you?" is the evening's exact curtain line.) The most important plot twist in between is delivered by fax. Yet as drama "Shimada" moves at the pace of bulk mail, and its content is somewhat less scintillating than the typical missive from, say, Publishers Clearing House.
One had expected so much more! This is the play that New York radio listeners have been hearing about for weeks through advertisements that darkly promise a night of Japan-bashing to rival Michael Crichton's novel "Rising Sun." In these commercials, an announcer sounding rather less lighthearted than a prophet of doom implies that "Shimada" would rip open a world in which "we" sit around like lazy bums in front of our VCR's while "they" buy up Columbia Pictures, downtown Los Angeles and anything else "they" can get their dirty hands on. In reality, however, "Shimada" has a Japanese co-producer, and its xenophobia is not significantly greater than that to be found in other Broadway shows with Japanese co-producers, like "The Will Rogers Follies," "A Streetcar Named Desire" and "Guys and Dolls."
Worse, "Shimada" really is about a bicycle company.
As written by Jill Shearer, whom the Playbill describes as "Queensland's best-known and most frequently performed playwright," this work tells what happens when the Beaumont concern, a small-town Australian outfit with a shrinking market, receives a lucrative investment offer from a Japanese businessman named Uchiyama (Mako) who wants to retool the factory to manufacture motorized dirt bikes. The company's proprietor, the widowed Sharyn Beaumont (Ellen Burstyn), is inclined to sell out, but her hard-drinking sales manager, Eric Dawson (Ben Gazzara), strenuously objects.
"We're a pedal-bike factory! That's what we built our reputation on!" bellows the red-faced Mr. Gazzara in an apoplectic fury that elevates pedal-biking to a fundamental right of man, second only to freedom of speech. He also argues that Uchiyama may in fact be Shimada, the sadistic guard who tortured him and Sharyn Beaumont's late husband when they were held in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in the Burmese jungle in 1945.
Is Uchiyama actually Shimada, or is Eric merely a bigot who thinks that all Japanese look alike? This is one of several questions that Miss Shearer eventually fudges in a play that refuses to take a stand even on its own plot and has a kind word for everyone except the mysterious, teeth-baring Shimada, who re-enacts his tortures in flashbacks set in a foggy echo chamber. The dramatic and intellectual level of the debates leading up to the play's waffling denouement can best be captured by citing some random samples of dialogue, spoken by a variety of interchangeable characters:
"It's an open market, and we can't compete anymore. We're overstocked and undercapitalized. Interest rates have skyrocketed!"
"If we refused to do business with any country we had a war with, where would we be?"
"Money makes the world go round!"
"It's a new ball game now!"
"We're a multi-cultural society whether you like it or not!"
"I thought we won the bloody war!"
"It's a different war now -- a trade war!"
To deliver such pearls, the management of "Shimada" has rounded up an overqualified, and at times ludicrously overzealous, cast that includes such supporting players as Estelle Parsons (in work boots, overalls and goggles as a union leader, if you please), Robert Joy, Ernest Abuba, Tracy Sallows and Jon Matthews (as a drag chanteuse in the prison camp interludes). Most of the principals are rewarded with lengthy soliloquies in which they reminisce tearily about their departed spouses, and Mako, an actor capable of both delicacy and bite, delivers his the most persuasively. The others often pedal uphill in Australian accents that come and go more rapidly than the faxes.
The director, Simon Phillips, is from New Zealand, and the best that can be said about his staging is that it is more convincingly wooden than the furniture in Tony Straiges's substandard set. Judy Dearing has designed some colorful costumes for a few cryptic Kabuki interludes and drab and unflattering outfits for the Australians, the incongruously chic Miss Burstyn excepted. Perhaps the most novel aspect of the production is its distinction, widely publicized, as the first Broadway show to offer a simultaneous Japanese translation. The headsets can be rented for $5, a bargain when you consider that by turning up the volume of the Japanese translation all the way, you can almost succeed in drowning out "Shimada" in English.
Japanese investment in Broadway has increased exponentially in the last few years. So it's not surprising to see a new play tackling the thorny social and political issues raised by Japanese incursions into Western culture. What's surprising is how lifelessly those issues are rendered by Australian playwright Jill Shearer in "Shimada." It's the season's biggest bore.
The title character is a sadistic guard in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in Burma who gleefully tortures two friends, Clive (Robert Joy) and Eric (Ben Gazzara), near the end of World War II.
Shimada may also be acquisitive businessman Toshio Uchiyama, who arrives half a century later in the small Australian town where Eric and Clive's widow, Sharyn (Ellen Burstyn), are struggling to salvage their bicycle factory. As "plastics" was to "The Graduate," so "dirt bikes" is to "Shimada."
Eric's conviction that Shimada and Uchiyama are one and the same is reinforced by the fact that both are played by Mako, who does a fine Jekyll-and-Hyde turn as Shimada in the flashbacks and Uchiyama in the present.
Despite some dreamy, pseudo-Kabuki interludes that are laughable, this 1987 Melbourne hit is standard issue.
Sharyn sees the Japanese investment as a lifeline they cannot afford to ignore. Clive mortgages his house and rallies the workers to save the factory from the clutches of outsiders. Predictably, it doesn't turn out well for any of them.
What went wrong with the production? Start with a director evidently incapable of getting his stars into the same constellation.
If the play were any better, Gazzara's performance might have been memorable for its cocksure badness. He blusters, splutters, struts and bellows with Crummles-like abandon. But it's not Shakespeare he's butchering, only a second-rate melodrama, so the performance doesn't quite reach the epic dimensions it aims for.
Burstyn fails from the opposite end, as her one-note earnestness grates virtually from the outset.
As a worker in the factory and Clive's earthy ally, Estelle Parsons tramps around in hiking boots, cutoffs and red headband. (Smaller roles are better played -- particularly Joy, who doubles as the dead dad and his now-grown son, and Tracy Sallows as another member of the factory family.)
Director Simon Phillips hasn't coaxed anything like a consistent style from this company. He's equally inept at integrating the scenes in the present and the flashbacks, which are underscored with throbbing music in case you miss the point.
Tony Straiges' handsome set, a louvered, bleached structure, is too big and open to focus the events of the play, though Richard Nelson's apt, airy lighting is pleasant.
Judy Dearing dresses Gazzara in a safari outfit that makes the performance seem even more false; the rest of the costumes are fine.
Ultimately, however, the failure is the playwright's. "Shimada" presents a timely scenario without ever really exploring it. Americans and Japanese searching for insight into current relations between us are advised to look elsewhere.