Sometimes all it takes to turn a cramped, overpriced, single-occupancy big-city condo into a must-own Manhattan co-op is something as seemingly trivial as a washer/dryer, which is why newlywed Sonya will do anything to maintain ownership of her co-op in Nandita Shenoy’s terrific World Premiere Comedy Washer/Dryer—even if it means pretending that her handsome hubby is merely a frequent sleep-over chum.
It’s only the doorman’s insistence that Michael (Ewan Chung) be announced each time he shows up for a “visit” that cues the freelance copywriter in to the ruse cooked up by his new bride Sonya (Rachna Khatau) to fool co-op boss Wendee (Nancy Stone) into believing that Sonya’s living all by her lonesome per co-op rules.
Figure it out though, he does, a discovery complicated by the arrival of Michael’s mother Dr. (“Don’t call me Mrs.”) Lee (Karen Huie), blissfully unaware that the kumquat of her eye has not only tied the knot with someone Mama hasn’t even heard of, let alone met, he’s gone off and eloped Vegas-style without a single family member anywhere within jasmine rice-throwing distance.
As if this weren’t already enough to send the day into disarray, who else should show up but Wendee with complaints of her own, like “Where’s the carpeting mandated by co-op rules?” and “Doesn’t your frequently visiting friend have somewhere else to spend his nights than in your single-occupancy co-op?”
Sonya assures Wendee that the rug is just being cleaned. As for the reason she gives for Michael’s nightly visits, well let’s just say that her real gay best friend Sam (Corey Wright) is none too happy about that.
With its pair of newlyweds just beginning their Big Apple cohabitation, its multi-generational cast (including a very outspoken mother-in-law), and its multiple-laughs-a-minute script, Washer/Dryer recalls Neil Simon’s Barefoot In The Park, albeit updated to the 2010s, with a Friends-like sense and sensibility thrown in, and perhaps most importantly, a reflection of today’s urban America that would do Shonda Rhimes proud.
Did I mention that Sonya is Indian-American, Michael is Chinese-American (with an immigrant Chinese Mom), Sam is African-American, and Wendee … Well, Wendee is white, but she does have a closeted gay teenager living at home, which gives her at the very least a 21-Century multicultural edge.
Yes, indeed, Washer/Dryer is America as we know it today (and not the lily-white U.S. that is still so often depicted on stage and screen), and how refreshing is that!
Still, refreshing would hardly be enough to merit non-stop audience laughter let alone a nearly unqualified rave from this reviewer were it not for a) Shenoy’s ingenious—and consistently hilarious—script; b) Peter J. Kuo’s inspired direction; and c) a cast that ought to be transferred lock, stock, and wok to the small screen if and when Washer/Dryer is awarded the weekly 30-minute slot it so richly deserves.
Kudos to Shenoy for giving us a play that is at once both ethnicity-specific and universal.
Yes, Sonya and Michael are, like most sitcom leads, young, attractive, and funny, characters that might normally be played by a Zooey Deschanel or a John Krasinski, and their in-law problems and co-op troubles could just as easily be had like by about any other young married couple in New York.
That being said, Washer/Dryer gains additional resonance in tone, texture, and depth by having Sonya and Michael as American-born Asians with “old country” families whose ideas and attitudes come specifically from their Indian or Chinese culture. And yes, it doesn’t really matter that Sam is African-American, but having him played by an actor of color bestows (forgive the pun) added hues upon the role.
Not only that but, in an entertainment industry that relegates so many performers of color to stereotypical cameos, how refreshing it is to see a play in which four of its five leading roles allow frequently marginalized performers to take center stage.
Khatau is not only smart/ditzy perfection as neurotic New Yorker Sonya, anyone who saw her play twice her age (and with an Indian accent to boot) in last year’s A Nice Indian Boy will find her performance an eye-opener. Want to update Friends to the 2010s? How about Khatau as your Rachel, Monica, or Phoebe? She’d rock all three roles as she does Sonya.
And speaking of Friends, I’m guessing that Chung could ace any of its trio of male leads as terrifically as he does nerdy/sexy mama’s boy Michael. Not only is Chung romcom lead appealing in the role, his physical comedy talent would do a Matthew Perry, David Schwimmer, or Matt LeBlanc proud.
As for Wright, the triple-threat (he just came off the Chicago The Musical national tour) virtually redefines the Sassy Black Gay Best Friend, taking a stereotype we’ve seen ad infinitum and stealing scene after scene with his utter fabulousness, in particular an America’s Top Model dance sequence (in full sari) that earns Wright the evening’s loudest cheers. (The actor also voices doorman Felipe, and quite amusingly so.)
The divine Huie follows her Best Featured Actress Scenie-winning performance as Ouiser in EWP’s Steel Magnolias with another scene-stealing turn as a Chinese Mother-From-Hell (who happens also to love her son to death). Not only does Huie show off her own physical comedy prowess in a stealth-entry sequence that would do MacGyver proud, the slow revelation of Dr. Lee’s tenderer sides earns her a few tears alongside that multitude of laughs.
Last but not least is Stone’s absolutely marvelous Wendee, every bit as nosey and bossy as her fellow mom Dr. Lee, but with very own neuroses and idiosyncrasies, and like Huie, when Wendee reveals her vulnerable, maternal side, there’s even more about Stone’s performance to applaud.
Not everything works perfectly in Washer/Dryer. Though set in the present day, Sam seems unaware that same-sex marriage became legal in New York State in 2011. And though the scene in question is a physical comedy showcase for Wright, Sam’s attempts to escape unseen from Sonya’s apartment lack motivation, begging the question, “Why on earth doesn’t he just stay safely behind that curtain?”
But these are very minor quibbles in the latest in a series of absolutely fabulous East West Players originals—Wrinkles, A Widow Of No Importance, The Nisei Widows Club: How Tomi Got Her Groove Back, A Nice Indian Boy, and now Washer/Dryer.
Scenic designers Arturo Betanzos and Sasha Monge get top marks for Sonya’s nifty if not so neat-and-tidy digs, with Monge’s properties adding multiple details. Sara Ryung Clement’s splendid costumes range from Manhattan chic to Indian silks. Rebecca Bonebrake’s terrific lighting design is matched by Howard Ho’s equally fine sound design and Ho’s jaunty original music.
Michelle L. Martina is stage manager.
If ever there were an East West Players World Premiere that deserves national legs in mainstream theaters, Washer/Dryer is that play, and if ever there were one deserving of Hollywood consideration, this one fills that bill to a T. It’s an absolute winner from start to finish.
East West Players, David Henry Hwang Theatre, 120 Judge John Aiso St., Los Angeles.
February 18, 2015
Photos: Michael Lamont