By Stanford Friedman
A young man’s inability to stay quiet in tumultuous times versus the intentional silence of his later years provides the time-jumping tension in Good Enemy, an often gripping new drama by Chinese-born playwright Yilong Liu. Spanning two countries and 37 years, the work brings fresh urgency to the 1980’s aftermath of China’s Cultural Revolution, when young citizens experimented with forgoing the Communist Party in favor of the cocktail party, testing the waters of capitalism while bopping to British bands like Joy Division.
The play begins, though, with the most quintessential of American traditions, a cross-country road trip. Howard (Francis Jue) is a concerned father on a mission. It is the spring of 2021, the pandemic has begun to ease, and he, along with a quirky hired driver, Dave (Alec Silver), are motoring from L.A. to Brooklyn to surprise Howard’s, college-age daughter, Momo (Geena Quintos), for her birthday. The reticent Howard and frustrated Momo barely correspond, his knowledge of her life coming primarily through monitoring her TikTok videos which show her not only occasionally modeling silky lingerie, but also participating in rallies protesting Asian hate.
It turns out Howard knows a thing or two about the risks of protesting for a noble cause. As the action shifts to Southern China, circa 1984, the young Howard, then known as Hao (Tim Liu), is a rookie police officer, torn between towing the Communist line and surrendering to the pleasures of wine, women and song. Hao’s superior officer and mentor, Xiong (Ron Domingo), sends him on a mission to infiltrate a dance party and before long he is knocking back a drink and flirting with the attractive Jiahua (Jeena Yi).
Their romance soon blossoms in a delightfully staged scene by director Chay Yew. Designer Junghyun Georgia Lee has carved a section of river into the stage and the couple bare their flesh and their feelings in its waters. Indeed, Liu lets the river flow as a central metaphor throughout the play, representing escape, triggering traumatic childhood memories for Hao and, later, serving as a type of healing for Howard.
Hao is not totally won over by Jiahua. He still feels loyalty to Xiong and to the government. Naively, he files reports that could result in Jiahua’s arrest, or much worse. The stirring outcome involves an engrossing, action-packed sequence full of confession, coercion, physicality and gun play, with that river swallowing up an important secret.
A resolution is also reached in Brooklyn when Howard and Momo eventually bond. With that outcome fairly obvious, and stakes much lower than those of Hao and Jiahua’s relationship, these modern-day scenes lack intensity by comparison. And while Jiahua is perhaps the most intriguing of the play’s characters, given her complicated connection to the man who almost caused her imprisonment, we are frustratingly denied a full explanation of her fate. Yi’s vivid, standout performance in the role, opposite Liu’s convincingly conflicted Hao and Domingo’s creepy Xiong, makes us miss her even more.
The 2021 scenes do offer some amusement though as Howard discovers his daughter’s live-in boyfriend (Ryan Spahn). His name is Jeff but gets referred to simply as “White Boyfriend.” And while surely a playwright’s best friend is a mobile phone, freeing characters and their plot lines from the physical constraints of landlines, Liu puts a new twist on the convenience, letting Howard and Jeff converse via the Google Translate app. (In a tricky bit of audience manipulation that somehow works, and earns laughs, we come to understand that Howard does not understand English). Perhaps it’s the playwright’s way of driving home the point that the challenge of being understood manifests itself in many forms.
Good Enemy – by Yilong Liu; directed by Chay Yew.
WITH: Ron Domingo (Xiong), Francis Jue (Howard), Tim Liu (Hao), Geena Quintos (Momo), Alec Silver (Dave), Ryan Spahn (White Boyfriend), and Jeena Yi (Jiahua).
Scenic design by Junghyun Georgia Lee, costume design by Mel Ng, lighting design by Reza Behjat, sound design by Mikhail Fiksel and fight/intimacy direction by Dave Anzuelo/Unkle Dave’s Fight-House. Audible Theater at the Minetta Lane Theatre (18 Minetta Lane), https://goodenemyplay.com. Through Sunday, November 27. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes.