Lodestone Theatre Ensemble, L.A.’s decade-old Asian-American 99-seat theater company, is ending its tenth (and sadly final) season with Philip W. Chung’s romantic comedy Grace Kim & The Spiders From Mars. With charismatic lead performances by Elizabeth Ho as its Korean-American title character and Hanson Tse as the man who might just be able to rescue Grace from ten years of sadness, this World Premiere production is likely to please romcom fans regardless of ethnicity or country of origin.  Though its more run-of-the-mill sitcom moments could benefit from a tweaking or two, as could a few over-the-top scenes, Chung’s play is filled with characters to care about, some inspired musical numbers, and a love story that grips from the moment Grace and Wayne first meet.  If only the man of Grace’s dreams weren’t her sister’s fiancé.

It’s two days before Christmas and older sis Maysie (Elaine Kao) is expected back at the Kim family’s suburban New Jersey homestead any time now with fiancé Wayne (Tse) in tow.  Waiting eagerly to meet Wayne are Grace’s widowed dad (Kelvin Han Yee), her brother Todd (Feodor Chin), and Todd’s very pregnant wife Sonia (Rachel Morihiro). Excitement is high at the Kims’, for word is that Wayne is “Cary Grant, Chou Yun-Fat, and Benjamin Bratt all rolled into one.”  There’s only one tiny worry on the family’s minds, and her name is Grace.

From the very beginning, Grace Kim was the black sheep of the family—only truly understood by her mother.  Then, ten years ago, Mom died, leaving Grace to fend for herself in a family in which she’d never fully fit in.  Dropping out of college, Grace retreated to her room where, for a year, there was only Ziggy Stardust, played over and over again, to keep her company and provide some modicum of solace.

Even today, Grace remains the family oddball.  Take, for example, the plaster cast of Jimi Hendrix’s erect penis that she recently bought on eBay. Grace simply can’t understand how her family can call something which was part of a rock legend’s body “gross.” After all, Grace reminds them, it’s been touched by famous lips like Janis Joplin’s and Mick Jagger’s. Why can’t her family “get” her the way her mom always could?

Now, her family has cause to wonder how Wayne will react to Grace, and how Grace will react to Wayne. Raised in Wisconsin by a Caucasian couple with no knowledge of his roots (he’d been an infant left on a church doorstep), Wayne has become a successful Beverly Hills surgeon—Asian in physical appearance only, or at least that’s how he felt until his recent trip to China. (More about that later.)

Grace greets Maysie with a “So where’s this great fiancé of yours who’s making my life miserable?”  (It seems that since the family learned about Dr. Wayne Cockburn (thankfully pronounced Coburn), he’s all Dad talks about, that is, when he’s not wondering out loud why Grace can’t seem to find a nice man like her sister.)

The Kim family is a revelation to Wayne. Maysie, who works as a nurse in his medical office, is the first Asian woman he’s ever dated.  It never occurred to him that born-in-the-USA girls like Grace, Maysie, Sonia, and Grace’s slutty best friend Clarissa (Jully Lee) would be hooked on a Korean-language soap like Autumn Leaves, so much so that they talk back to the screen in English.  (“Turn around and tell her you love her!  She’s dying, can’t you see?”) It never occurred to him that the mere act of kissing Maysie in her living room would provoke an only half-joking, “No PDAs!  We’re Korean.”  Still, who wouldn’t feel at home with the Kims, a family so obviously blessed with love for each other—and a sense of humor to boot?

Then comes Wayne’s bombshell.  He’s decided to return to China and open a free clinic there. In fact he’s already resigned from his Beverly Hills practice and will be departing for China as soon as possible, hopefully with his bride-to-be as his companion.

This comes as news to Maysie, who wonders why he couldn’t at least have told her first. Mr. Kim too is none too happy about the prospect of Maysie living half a world away.  “Is it really necessary to uproot your whole life?” he asks his soon-to-be-expatriate daughter.

Some announcements are best dealt with after a good night’s sleep, and so the Kims retire for the night … all but insomniac Grace and future Kim son-in-law Wayne, who’s still on Beijing time.

The fact that both Grace and Wayne are night-owls is just the first hint that Maysie’s sister may have more in common with her sister’s fiancé than Maysie does.  There’s also the matter of music, and the love they both feel for Joni Mitchell and Herbie Hancock. Soon Grace and Wayne are sharing their favorite song titles and artists and listening to Cassandra Wilson’s cover of Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon.”  This is the first time in ages, Grace tells Wayne, that she’s really clicked with someone.  She admires Wayne’s willingness to give up everything for his convictions, and reveals that she’s considering accepting a part-time job teaching autistic children, a job that would mean a move to Seattle. Before long, the two music lovers are dancing and singing along to ABBA’s “Dancing Queen,” and when the song ends, Grace and her sister’s fiancé share their first kiss.

Can you say “trouble on the horizon”?

If Hollywood were to make a movie of Grace Kim & The Spiders From Mars, the studio would doubtless de-Asianize it and cast Reese Witherspoon as Grace and Ryan Reynolds as Wayne, or some other (Caucasian) couple de jour.  Thus, until movie studios get their acts together and start casting outside the box, it’s up to theater companies like Lodestone to provide Asian actors with roles like those Chung has written for his attractive young cast.

Both Ho and Tse are terrific actors with real star potential, and they have such great chemistry together that audience sympathy ends up torn between Wayne & The-Girl-He’s-Proposed-To and Wayne & The-Girl-He’s-Obviously-Made-For.  Kao is such a likeable presence as Maysie that we know from the get-go that someone’s heart is going to be broken, and much as we may wish for Wayne and Grace to be together, we don’t want that broken heart to be Maysie’s.  Chin and Morihiro are both very good as well, though a little of “always-on” Todd Kim goes a long way. Quietly stealing every scene she’s in is the delightful Lee as Clarissa (“I’m a slut not a whore”) Lee.

Grace Kim & The Spiders From Mars (if the “Spiders” was explained, I missed it) is at its best when it’s at its most real, and also at its most fantastical, and its realest and most fantastical moments both occur in Act Two.  As Grace and Wayne begin to face up to their feelings for each other, there’s authentic pathos, and more than once I wiped away a tear.  There are also a series of fantasy song-and-dance sequences which reflect Grace’s wish that life be like a musical, including a particularly effective romantic triangle/trio rendition of Todd Rundgen’s “Hello It’s Me,” sung in three-part harmony by Ho, Tse, and Kao.

There are a couple areas where Chung’s play and Lodestone’s production could stand some improvement.  Especially in the first act, Chung’s script goes for easy laughs which take the Kims out of the realm of the reality in which they spend most of the play.  The role of Mr. Kim is sometimes too over-the-top to be believed, and director Jeff Liu (most of whose work here is savvy and sensitive) has Yee overplay the role in a good number of instances. A scene in which Mr. Kim breaks down in phony, played-for-laughs sobs while secretly watching Autumn Leaves got laughs galore from the opening night audience, but didn’t work for me. A few moments later, though, Yee was absolutely marvelous (and absolutely real) when recalling the wife Mr. Kim still loves with all his heart.  

Design elements are all-around top notch, from Kit Stølen’s Christmassy living room set, to Christopher M. Singleton’s lighting, to Dennis Yen’s sound design, to Ivy Y. Chou’s costumes.  Shannon Wong’s “dream sequence” choreography is a production highlight.

Grace Kim & The Spiders From Mars ends Lodestone on a mostly very high note. (Chung has written a quite moving sequence explaining just what a lodestone is and how it relates to Grace and Wayne’s lives.)  If nothing else, I’ll remember it as the play that introduced me to Ho and Tse, whose careers I look forward to following. (All right, I did see Ho in East West Players’ Ixnay, but here it felt like discovering her for the first time.) Playwright Chung announced to the opening-night audience that this production is the only one that Grace Kim & The Spiders From Mars will ever have.  For that reason alone, it’s worth seeing. Be prepared to laugh, but bring along a Kleenex or two.  If you’re anything like me, you’ll need them.

Lodestone Theatre Company, GTC Burbank, 1111-B West Olive Av., Burbank.

–Steven Stanley
November 14, 2009
                                                                                 Photos: Nic Cha Kim

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