The West Coast premiere of Diana Son's Satellites, the centerpiece of Aurora Theatre Company's Global Age Project "to explore life in the 21st century and beyond," offers a very different view of Brooklyn gentrification than Danny Hoch's Taking Over next door at Berkeley Rep.
While Hoch's multi-character monologue stacks the deck against invaders who make his old neighborhood more comfortable while pricing out the natives, Son's play considers a bourgeois, multiethnic couple who have just moved in: he an out-of-work software developer, she an architect so busy dealing with her squalling newborn baby that she's hopelessly behind in her work.
But that's not nearly all that the acclaimed playwright of Stop Kiss — whose bread and butter has been as a writer for The West Wing and supervising producer for Law & Order: Criminal Intent — attempts to take on in a scant ninety minutes without intermission. Nina (Julie Oda) is also out of touch with her Korean heritage, and Miles (Michael Gene Sullivan) doesn't feel like he knows much about being black, as they both grew up in mostly white communities, and in Miles' case even in a white family. Son gives each of them a foil to highlight this cultural disconnect: Nina hires a Korean nanny (an exaggeratedly subservient and heavily accented Lisa Kang) so that her baby can learn the language, and an outgoing African-American neighbor Reggie (Michael J. Asberry) keeps walking in uninvited with enterprising home-improvement advice.
Miles is as afraid of Reggie's backdoor bargains as the most uptight white yuppie would be, but he's easily taken in by the sketchy business schemes of his own freeloading white brother Eric (played with an oily charm by Darren Bridgett). Nina distrusts Eric, resents having to pay the rent while Miles is having trouble getting his act together, and is hypersensitive to what she sees as racist presuppositions on the nanny's part. Her business partner Kit is overwhelmed by having to take up Nina's slack, Reggie feels (quite correctly) disrespected by Miles, and Miles feels alienated from his wife and child and ill at ease in their new neighborhood.
It's a tense household, and only becomes more so until both the characters and the play burn out. After the convenient tidiness of the setup, it's probably for the best that Son doesn't feel the need to tie up the ending so neatly as well, but the result is that it doesn't really have one, closing with an out-of-nowhere metaphor that's tossed off halfheartedly. The humor in Kent Nicholson's well-paced staging is ultimately more effective than the drama because it feels less heavy-handed, especially in parts you wouldn't expect to be funny such as a scene in which Kit fishes for information about Miles' drug-addicted infancy.
At first it's not at all clear what the time frame is between scenes. Boxes hidden under sheets in the first scene as if they'd been there a long time are uncovered in the second, so that it seems as if we're entering a flashback to when the couple first moved into the apartment, but it turns out not to be the case. The whole play takes place shortly after moving in, and scenes move along in a vague "some time later" progression.
Confusing sheets aside, Melpomene Katakalos' set realistically evokes the interior of a crumbling brownstone, with color strips taped to walls waiting to be painted and linoleum peeling on the floor. Callie Floor's casual costumes add a lot to the characters, from Reggie's Sean John track suit to Miles' software company T-shirts and jammie bottoms. The booming bass between scenes in Chris Houston's sound design is obnoxious and probably intended to be, and Michael Palumbo's lights feel natural except when they're being used to shove home a dramatic soliloquy.
There's a lot of spunk in Oda's performance even when Nina's become really unpleasant to be around (not least for the audience), but there's also a recitative quality to her delivery that never seems natural. San Francisco Mime Troupe head writer Sullivan gives Miles a sympathetic humanity even when he's being a jerk, but he also plays some of the comic moments very broadly, particularly his paranoia around Reggie. Yarkut brings a lot of depth and nuance to the overworked but always supportive Kit, and Asberry commands attention as boisterous Reggie.
It's the sort of play in which you say there are no easy answers, because it raises a number of issues and just leaves them hanging there. And of course it's true that there aren't any easy answers to these questions about ethnicity and authenticity, career and family, and the often hostile relationship between the old neighborhood and the new. Satellites is a lot like life that way — so messy and full of loose ends and contradictions that it wouldn't make a very good play.
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