When Emily Kuroda, as Tasanee, the matriarch of the Thai-American family we are introduced to in The Brothers Paranormal, explains to her son why the dead might linger in some places, the play achieves a small but necessary reckoning. This declaration—a joining of the play’s inner lining and plot points—comes late in the second act of the Pan Asian Repertory production, now playing in the Beckett Theatre at Theatre Row. It’s a pronouncement we’ve been waiting for. Not that the production needs any assistance in keeping us moored to the proceedings: the somewhat anxiety-stricken, supernatural goings-on are delightfully spooky and hyper-suspenseful, and always neatly realized. Yet the play itself, written by Prince Gomolvilas, seems to aspire to larger, more complex thematic considerations than those solely pertaining to the resolution of domestic grief. And it’s these important, but largely missing, elements—of a social or historical nature—that prove to be the true ghosts of this production, hovering mostly out of sight, except for vaporous intimations.
Not that the intention, apparently, was to relegate these matters to the margins. Not least of all on the part of the playwright, who, in his playbill note, calls attention to the “intersection” in his work of race and genre. This story of an older African American woman who claims she is being visited by a Thai-speaking ghost and reaches out to a pair of Thai-American ghostbusters, is rife for exploration of themes highlighting the impact of systemic bias upon these two groups. And the play does adroitly mix genres: Gomolvilas’s dialogue is authentic and often funny. The cold, loud apparitional sequence that opens the show is deftly mitigated by the presentation of more recognizable and layered domestic scenes. Real people are haunted by cogent, everyday realities: illness, economic woes, the death of loved ones, and the desperation of marginalized groups to invade the dominant cultural and economic American mainstream. All of which, in turn, is offset by the jarring, almost cinematic exhibition of paranormal forces making their presence felt in no uncertain terms.
But the cultural challenges experienced by people of color in America—whether stated tacitly or explicitly in The Brothers Paranormal—never crystallize for the characters and the story in any meaningful or representational way. For example, when one of the African American family members undergoes a serious heart condition brought on by the invasion of the Thai ghost, the resolution of this critical plot point is void of any outside, societal considerations. It never is clear why—in the schematic reasoning of this play—bad things happen to good people beyond a horror-movie’s assertion that the dead, like the living, need to avenge people before moving on.
This larger, dramaturgical opportunity—apparently carved out but never filled-in—would have been ably supported by the play’s acting, direction and production elements. The sound design and effects (Ian Wehrle and Steve Cuiffo, respectively) artfully differentiate the aural nuances of a natural environment and the more jarring (but never histrionic) tones of a supernatural one. And the set design (Sheryl Liu) and lighting design (Victor En Yu Tan) come together as a first-rate ensemble to support the crisscrossing genres. Hyun Sook Kim’s costumes ably and poetically reinforce the dichotomy between the influences of the old and new.
Jeff Liu’s direction is an adroit reading of the play’s pulse, which takes its quiet, deliberative time in building to heart-racing moments but never fails to speed back up fluidly and convincingly when necessary. And the cast ably, believably, skips through the roving genres—and various, plasmatic possibilities. Perhaps this last quality is no better embodied than in Kurada’s Tasanee. This gifted veteran of stage and screen never fails to deliver poetry when the play is grounded and to bring it back to earth when it necessarily, if not completely, has lifted off the ground.
The Brothers Paranormal. By Prince Gomolvilas. Directed by Jeff Liu. With Brian D. Coats (Felix), Natsuko Hirano (Jai), Vin Kridakorn (Max), Emily Kuroda (Tasanee), Dawn L. Troupe (Delia), Roy Vongtama (Visarut). Special Effects: Steve Cuiffo; Costume Design: Hyun Sook Kim; Set Design: Sheryl Liu; Lighting Design: Victor En Yu Tan; Fight Consultant (Michael G. Chin; Sound Design: Ian Wehrle; Stage Manager: Kristine Schlachter; Assistant Stage Manager: Sabrina Morabito. 2 hours, including intermission. Now playing through May 19 at the Beckett Theatre at Theatre Row, 410. W. 42nd Street, New York, NY. Tickets are $62.25 – $102.25. Click here for tickets.