There’s something amiss in this story of a New Jersey family.
You might say it’s the sibling love affair, or the parent who’s an arsonist and murderer, or the parent who’s a racist snowman. You could guess that it’s the birds that have been dying because of the recent earth-to-sky migration by humans. You’d be right on all accounts, because the Playwrights Horizons and WP Theater’s coproduction of “Regretfully, So the Birds Are” is equal parts chaos and absurdity.
In the new play, which opened Tuesday night at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater, a large family portrait hanging above a living room couch immediately clues us in to the Whistler family’s dynamic: the father, at the far right of the photo, and the wall beyond the frame, is obscured in a black cloud of scorch marks.
A half-seared portrait is just one piece of the collateral damage of the dysfunction in this family, whose white matriarch, Elinore (Kristine Nielsen), is incarcerated for immolating her husband, Cam (Gibson Frazier), a former Asian studies professor, in his home office. Their three adult children, all Asian American adoptees, have their own issues: Mora (Shannon Tyo), a self-professed disaster, embarks on an overseas journey to find her birth mother just before her 30th birthday but falls prey to a woman posing as a family member (Pearl Sun).
The youngest, 25-year-old Illy (Sasha Diamond), is a successful musician who has just bought real estate in the sky, the newest trend among billionaires looking to somehow build houses among the clouds. She’s also dating her daft 28-year-old brother, Neel (Sky Smith), to Mora’s horror; the couple says the romance is fine because the siblings aren’t related by blood. Neel then has a revelation about his musical abilities that leads him to Nebraska to find himself. Cam is reincarnated as a snowman who shares facts about Pol Pot and makes racist assumptions about Asia. And above their heads, the birds are conferencing to decide how to stop the human colonization of the sky.
The script, by Julia Izumi, and direction, by Jenny Koons, emphasize the work’s quirkiness, but the anemic plot and feebly drawn characters are thrown together to unclear ends.
Still, Nielsen and Frazier do what they can with the material, which includes casual quasi-incest, bird puppets wielded by the cast and, again, a racist snowman. Nielsen nearly runs off with the show as Elinore, a former opioid addict with dementia who has the play’s best lines. Her delivery is full of surprises, from aloof non sequiturs about, say, the usefulness of salad spinners, to her blunt appraisals of her children when they visit her in jail (“You may not be my best-liked but you are objectively the most responsible,” she says to Illy).
Frazier gives a delightfully droll performance as the snowman, who offers the clearest keyhole view into how one of the show’s most compelling themes could have been executed. Though Cam’s Frosty incarnation comes across as little more than a gimmick, his misguided exposition on Asian history and culture make him a punchy satire of white Americans who fetishize a whole race of people.
Because otherwise the siblings’ arcs fail to resolve or complicate the play’s flimsy interrogation of what it means to have an Asian American identity or to be Asian in America but feel bereft of a heritage. The sky homes seem to be the beginning of a class critique and the angry birds seem to be nods to environmental catastrophe. Or maybe they’re a metaphor for racial or social identity. Or maybe they’re just birds.
Even the set design, by You-Shin Chen, reflects the play’s confusion. The small stage is awkwardly trifurcated: the half-singed living room, a treehouse with a sky backdrop and a yard with the snowdad. There’s little to identify the play’s other settings — Elinore’s jail cell, an airport in China, someplace in Nebraska, a bird council meeting, a funeral altar.
“Regretfully, So the Birds Are” resembles its title: initially intriguing but ultimately incomplete.
Regretfully, So the Birds Are
Through April 30 at Peter Jay Sharp Theater at Playwrights Horizons, Manhattan; wptheater.org or playwrightshorizons.org. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.