Volume 76, Number 5 | June 21 - 27 2006

Theater

SATELLITES
Written by Diana Son, Directed by Michael Grief
Through July 2 at The Public Theater
425 Lafayette St., bet. Astor Pl. & E. 4th St.
(212-239-6200; www.publictheater.org)

Photo by Michal Daniel

Sandra Oh helps put ‘Satellites’ back in orbit

By Scott Harrah

Sandra Oh, best known for her work in the Oscar-winning indie drama “Sideways” and the TV hit “Grey’s Anatomy,” takes on her most challenging role yet in Diana Son’s thought-provoking but rough-hewn play “Satellites.” Oh plays Nina, a Korean-American architect who has just had a baby and moved into a fixer-upper home in an up-and-coming Brooklyn neighborhood with her unemployed African-American husband Miles (Kevin Carroll). The section of Brooklyn in which they now live is being gentrified as Manhattan yuppies move into the area, renovate the dilapidated homes and ultimately jack up the real estate prices.

Nina is overwrought with stress and hires a Korean nanny, Mrs. Chae (Satya Lee,) to take care of the baby and teach it to speak Korean. As Nina’s husband Miles ponders his tenuous financial situation and faces the demands of renovating the house on a shoestring budget, he’s paid a visit by his white adopted brother Eric (Clarke Thorell), a man who’s been traveling the world and has no job or any direction in his life. While Nina struggles to keep clients in her architecture business happy and works on entering a design competition for a building in Spain, she also must deal with her business partner Kit (Johanna Day), a discontented woman who’s distraught over turning 40 and still being single. There’s plenty of tension present, but things are made worse by the couple’s mysterious neighbor Reggie (Ron Cephas Jones), a local who grew up on the street and is not pleased that his boyhood neighborhood is being taken over by affluent former Manhattanites and developers.

There are many serious themes going on here—the identity crises of interracial couples and the racism they face, sibling squabbles, the unresolved feelings of being adopted, multiculturalism, aging, gentrification, and women who try to juggle work with children. Son, who received much acclaim for her last play at the Public “Stop Kiss,” packs too much conflict into the story’s numerous subplots. As a result, at times things border on the absurd and melodramatic. Michael Grief, who did such an outstanding job directing this season’s sleeper hit musical “Grey Gardens,” could have spent more time fine-tuning the unfocused material and toning down the shrill performances of some cast members.

Everything about “Satellites” — the yelling and screaming of the actors, the umpteen times the couple’s front window is broken, and the annoying, atonal music played between scenes — is loud, abrasive and chaotic.

Some of the story’s conflicts come off contrived and confusing, and there are far too many characters for a one-act play. Miles’s brother Eric and a boarder who lives on the top floor of the house are totally unnecessary characters that only make the story more convoluted. The subplot involving Nina’s business partner Kit going through a midlife crisis seems like mere thematic padding. Miles and Nina’s story is the most effective and should have been the sole focus of the storyline, and the two have the most powerful moments onstage. A scene in which Miles admits that he and Nina were simply not ready to have a child speaks volumes about the plight of modern-day couples juggling careers, love lives, and family.

Two saving graces help keep the rambling narrative of “Satellites” under control and make it worth seeing: Mark Wendland’s realistic, high-tech sets and Sandra Oh’s natural, poignant performance. The show has one of the best Off-Broadway sets that New York theatergoers have seen for some time, complete with a full living room, staircase and kitchen, and Nina’s in-home architectural design studio. Oh is a truly gifted actress, and she delivers her lines with dramatic aplomb and transcends the often-perplexing material. Whenever Oh screams, cries or laughs, she does so with conviction and plausibility. Son’s tale has a lot to say about race, class and the American work ethic in the new millennium, but her premise lacks clarity, and the simplistic ending is just too pat for such an emotionally charged, complex story.

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