(This is Jerry’s review of the Firehall production from last winter.)
The expression “banana boys” refers to assimilated Chinese-Canadian guys deemed to be yellow on the outside, white on the inside. The play Banana Boys is equally divided. Inside a very bad play lives a very good one.
The advance hype about Leon Aureus’ stage adaptation of Terry Woo’s novel about five college buddies led me to fear that we might be in for a conventionally realist Canadian ethnic drama: five guys in a living room drinking, playing games, preparing for dates, arguing, joking, struggling with parental expectations and racist barriers to their success and self-esteem.
All those elements appear in this play but not as conventional realism. Derek Butt’s set is only a series of steps and opaque screens, and the five talented actors rapidly shift roles under Jack Paterson’s crisp, imaginative direction. One moment they’re the college friends, the next they’re characters in a game show, a gospel revival, or a surrealistic dream.
With help from Michael Scriven’s technicolor lighting, these secondary scenes are the most effective by far.
For instance, Mike (Simon Hayama) desperately wants to be a writer but family pressures send him to medical school instead. The friends’ discussion of his situation is only mildly interesting. A series of running-gag nightmares about emergency surgery illustrates his dilemma much more vividly. And a game show sequence in which his mother appears as a Sumo wrestler (an insanely funny Parnelli Parnes), threatening to crush him if he doesn’t become a doctor, lawyer, businessman, or engineer, makes the point with wonderful theatricality.
The same goes for Dave (Rick Tae), the angry friend, a computer geek consumed by racial paranoia, whose story is most engagingly told when he leads a lively, surreal call-and-response revival scene about anti-Asian racism.
Nerdy Shel (Parnes) spends much of the play on his cellphone with a problem girlfriend and Luke (Vincent Tong), a wannabe DJ, struggles with anger management issues. Both actors bring substantial charm to their characters but ultimately those characters are just sketches.
The play really goes off the rails in its focus on Rick (Victor Mariano), the ambitious prescription-drug-addicted stockbroker whose early death is announced in the first scene, eerily narrated from the grave. He’s also at the centre of one of the best dream sequences, taking F.O.B. lessons to learn how to become more like those Fresh-Off-the-Boat Chinese.
But much too much second act time is spent with Rick’s real-life troubles. The repetition becomes boring, and we’re just not sufficiently invested in him for his seriously melodramatic agonies to work for us. Ditto for the frequent angry, misogynist arguments among the friends.
Peel away that skin and this banana is sweet, funny, and culturally nourishing.