The Hour of the Tiger at New Theatre misses the mark on Japan and its geisha culture

The Hour of the Tiger is a sweet-hearted, well-intended, and thoroughly awful play by Miamian Sandra Riley. It deals with homosexuality, Japanese gender roles, American guilt, American innocence, geisha culture, dance, and friendship, among other things.

One might divine just how lost Riley became while negotiating those tricky subjects by counting the number of cogent thoughts her characters express about them. That number is zero. For example: When American lesbo Alexa (Kim Ehly) decides, apropos of nothing, to discuss the American imperial impulse, she begins by explaining how the United States reacted to its victory in World War II. "We got stuck!" she says. "Trapped in an archetype of our own creation — a mushroom cloud! We're always at war with something. Nazism! Communism! What's next? Who's next?" Other characters express similar thoughts soon after, and a queer Japanese fellow named Hiroshi (Eric Miji) blames his American lover for the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Though his lover protests, we are clearly supposed to feel at least a twinge of guilt.

That's the sum of The Hour of the Tiger's engagement with warfare: America is bad, and "beautiful and ancient Japanese culture" (as the characters call it, over and over again) is good, Nanking and 10,000,000 dead Chinese notwithstanding. Contemplate the sloppy language and sloppier politics in the quote above — the misuse of the word archetype, the shocking failure to grok that totalitarianisms are generally worth fighting, and the obvious point that "we" barely fought Communism (though about 2 million Cambodians probably wish "we" had) — and you begin to get a feel for the kind of boneless, new-age sensibility that infects every level of this show, from its lumpen acting to its arrhythmic pacing, and its careless dialogue to its shaky premise.


The Hour of the Tiger

The Hour of the Tiger: By Sandra Riley; directed by Ricky J. Martinez. Through February 14. New Theatre, 4120 Laguna St., Coral Gables; 305-443-5909; new-theatre.org.

That premise is something like this: In 1973, David (Christopher Vicchiollo) — a rich, gay member of the American intelligentsia — is in Tokyo. The aforementioned Alexa, a writer, is his friend. She is utterly taken by a beautiful geisha named Sanagi (Gwendolyn Lai). David, in turn, is very taken with the aforementioned Hiroshi, who also happens to be Sanagi's jealous pimp. Both couples couple, and conflict ensues.

The most intriguing conflict, however, is not the one taking place onstage, but the one behind it — the conflict between Sandra Riley and reality. The Hour of the Tiger is purported to be a kind of love letter from Riley to the Japan she visited in the early '70s. Unfortunately, she is unaware of several basic facts about geisha life. Geishas, especially in Tokyo, are not prostitutes and have not served as them since the end of the Edo Era during the Meiji Restoration. (The play makes reference to Sanagi's ritual deflowering by a client, or "mizuage," even though a 20th-century mizuage consisted of little more than a haircut.) Moreover, geishas spring out of a matriarchal social milieu that would not take kindly to a man, no matter how dapper or charming (and Hiroshi is neither), taking a proprietary interest in one of their own. Riley makes no effort to explain why her geisha deviates so drastically from the norm, and her lapse in that regard will lead to a puzzled scratching of heads among audiences with knowledge of Japanese culture.

Further head scratching might be induced by The Hour of the Tiger's weird approach to pacing and characterization. It has none. Scenes take place minutes, hours, or months apart, and seldom do we receive any indication of which it was. Exposition, the skillful deployment of which could help give a sense of time, is provided only haphazardly and fails to clearly delineate the relationships between the characters. Hiroshi especially is difficult to get a handle on. In some scenes, he is David's doting lover, bringing him presents and mincing cutely around his apartment. Moments later, he is Sanagi's terrifying and violent master. Both David and Alexa know about Sanagi's twisted relationship with Hiroshi and disapprove of it, yet there they are, making nice with them at a bar. Then, seconds later, Alexa confronts him in a rage, wielding a Samurai sword, and Sanagi threatens to stab him to death. So, is Hiroshi a villainous, vicious pimp or a misunderstood gentleman with lady issues? This is never really clear, and it's doubful the confusion is intentional.

The character of David is similarly fuzzy. Witness how he begins as a brilliant old queen in the Franco Zeffirelli mode — filling out the New York Times crossword in ink, dishing about singers Renata Tebaldi and Franco Corelli, and throwing shade like mad — and then very quickly begins lobbing anachronistic new-age inanities about "the universe." "We take from the universe what feels right to us," goes a typical bromide as he discusses the role of fate in bringing Alexa to Japan. He uses words more appropriate for an early-'00s acolyte of The Secret author Rhonda Byrne than an early-'70s aesthete. This, like the play's silly mangling of the geisha concept, is profoundly displacing, a categorical mashup that leaves the play and all who see it suspended in an uneasy place, outside of ordinary time and space.

The actors really shouldn't be judged too harshly for their attempts to bring such material to life, any more than a doctor should be castigated for failing to resurrect the dead. Still, though, it can't be ignored that Lei's Sanagi abandons any pretense of an accent by the fifth or sixth scene, even while retaining the stilted syntax of the newly minted English speaker. "It. Has. Been. A. While. Since. We. Last. Met," she says in accentless English, chopped into abrasive staccato. She sounds like a robot in a space opera. Again: displacing. Other actors have a terrible time getting their words to flow together in any kind of sensible rhythm. They do begin to cohere by the second half of the 90-minute show, and Vicchiollo and Miji bring real fire to a final scene that is almost touching. But so what?

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