• Wednesday, September 19, 2018
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Traumatic memories distract from romance in ‘Living Room’

  • COURTESY DENISE DE GUZMAN

    From left: Natalie Dawn, Daryl Bonilla and Kahana Ho in “Living Room” by William Kahele at Kumu Kahua Theatre.

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In Kumu Kahua Theatre’s premiere production of his first play, “Living Room,” an antic romantic comedy with overtones of a fractured fairy tale, veteran actor/director William Kahele has created a couple of vivid and likable local characters.

While appealing characters count for a lot in art as in life, unfortunately they’re not enough to make a success of this imaginative, touching, yet uneven play.

It’s handicapped at the outset by a long, static opening interlude in which the lights go on and retro music plays but there’s no action for the duration of several refrains while the audience stares at a living room containing a sleeping couch, packing boxes, knickknacks, bottles of liquor but no people.

Finally, characters begin to enter and exit without, at first, interacting: a silent little boy (Ricky Cardenas) searches in the boxes; the 40-ish Eli (Daryl Bonilla) staggers about, looking distraught and taking swigs from the bottles. He is joined by Millie (Aimee Nelson), an affectionate, fey 20-something in an iridescent blue dress and outsize wings who speaks in a pseudo-British, Audrey Hepburn drawl.

These affectations are not her fault; Millie is the apparition of Eli’s mother, who died when he was 4. Raised by his father and grandmothers, he has modeled Millie from their descriptions and the Blue Fairy in “Pinocchio” who brings the puppet to life and later grants his wish to be turned into a real boy.

“I gave you life,” Millie tells Eli.

When Eli takes a pistol out of a box and points it at his head, she begs him not to kill himself. Throughout the crisis-ridden first act, the ghosts of Eli’s alcoholic, abandoning father (the always eloquent Will Ha‘o), his strict, homophobic paternal grandmother (Kahana Ho), and his accepting, enabling maternal grandmother (Natalie Dawn) argue with Eli and one another about who’s to blame.

Turns out the gun was stolen, and a buff cop named Ming (Aaron Miko) is on the case. There is immediate chemistry between the two men — Eli is gay, Ming coyly closeted.

As they get to know each other, the at-first-reserved Ming breaks into snippets of tunes from “Rent” and other Broadway musicals, preens with a medal on his bare chest, and reveals his first name is Charles but the other cops call him Charm, as in “Charm-Ming.”

The budding romance under these unlikely circumstances is fun, and more than enough to hang a play on, but “Living Room” gets bogged down in too much family back story.

Despite all the unhappy and repetitive revelations from Eli’s childhood, the dramatic element of motivation is missing: Why would Eli want to shoot himself now? We never get a clue.

The playwright hints at his intent in his program note, describing the different child-rearing philosophies of his grandmothers, which he survived “but not without some bumps and bruises along the way.”

First plays are often coming-of-age works, but “Living Room” tries to do too much by overlapping genres. “‘Night Mother” doesn’t play with “Rent.”

In that first act there is far too much shouting and waving and pointing of the gun, and in an almost unbearably harrowing scene, the child gets hold of it.

Yes, there is a second act, and the final resolution is worth staying for.

“Living Room,” written by William Kahele, directed by Harry Wong III, stage management by Anette Arinix, technical direction by BullDog, lights by Travis Namba, costumes by Nara Malia Cardenas, sound by Ryan Okinaka. Cast: Daryl Bonilla (Eli), Ricky Cardenas (The Boy), Natalie Dawn (Fannie/Dr. Young), Will Ha‘o (Junior/Maintenance Man), Kahana Ho (Rose/Laverne), Aaron Miko (Ming), Aimee Nelson (Millie/Housekeeper). Running time: 2 hours with intermission. Contains language and situations inappropriate for children.

“LIVING ROOM”

Presented by Kumu Kahua Theatre

>> Where: 46 Merchant St.

>> When: 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays (except Feb. 4), through Feb. 18

>> Cost: $5-$25

>> Info: 536-4441, kumukahua.org

>> Note: American Sign Language interpretation available by request for Feb. 18 performance; free post-show talk-story session on Jan. 26

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