Hollywood is a ruthless, uncouth content machine that bows to the great god of profit, while often mistreating writers. This diagnosis of the film and television industry is well known in American culture and may be partially or fully as true as the current one Writers Guild of America strike reminds us.
In the spiteful comedy Exclusion, playwright Kenneth Lin at times deftly complicates this stale vision of bourgeois Tinseltown. But as seen in the elegant, beautifully acted, and often hilarious Arena Stage world premiere directed by Trip Cullman, the tweaks aren’t always enough to give the play a fresh Hollywood feel. However, by flipping the paradigm here and there, Lin directs our thoughts and sympathies more towards the play’s other main theme: the urgency to tell stories that the American mainstream has marginalized, and the power struggle that results from it can arise.
Exclusion centers on a historian who has researched one such history: the history of China’s 1882 Exclusion Law. When her award-winning book on the subject is selected for a TV mini-series, Katie (played by Karoline, the represents such a story). Name) is initially excited to join the writers’ room. But when a Hollywood star named Harry (Josh Stamberg) and his collaborators strip the show of its historical accuracy and fill it with racist stereotypes, Katie reconsiders her Faustian deal.
From the play’s opening moments, as Katie nervously waits for Harry to show up for an appointment, Karoline skillfully balances the awkwardness, hesitation, indignation and determination of the historian character, delivering a portrait that captures the play’s occasional surprises supports. Stamberg is hilarious as the oily, bloated Harry, who has a bad view of the audience watching. “Katie, if Gomer John Q. Flyover knows the phrase ‘Chinese Exclusion Act,’ I mean, measure us for my Humanitas award,” he says.
The great Tony Nam finds just the right mannerisms for Katie’s restless husband, aspiring director Malcolm. The relatively naturalistic give and take between spouses — intimacy, gentle squabbles, affectionate jokes — is a nice complement to Hollywood’s cynical satire. (Designer Arnulfo Maldonado punctuates this satire with sets that include Harry’s soullessly tidy office dominated by a giant movie poster for Basic Instinct.)
Also highly compelling are Katie’s interactions with Viola (an attractive Michelle Vergara Moore), an actress of Chinese descent who reads Paris reviews and whose perspective on the miniseries differs from Katie’s. In one particularly engaging sequence, Katie briefly addresses Viola in Cantonese, which Viola talks about a bit. For those of us in the audience who don’t speak Cantonese, the exchange evokes a valuable sense of exclusion. And yet the essence of the Cantonese conversation – the sudden, profound moment of shared concern among women – is poignantly clear.
Katie, Viola and Malcolm wrestle with how Hollywood misrepresents, suppresses and distorts Asian American history. Their engagement with the subject more than justifies the play’s place Arena Stage’s Power Plays serieswhich focuses on American history, politics, and power strikes me as particularly timely: We’re still suffering from more than just a pandemic-era upswing anti-Asian hatebut also because of ongoing partisan political efforts to restrict school teaching about race and racism.
Lin, who is not only a playwright (“kleptocracy‘), a screenwriter and producer (including ‘House of Cards’ on Netflix), is imaginative at weaving the historical themes into a parody of Hollywood. This parody doesn’t always feel new, but when it does, we’re glad to be a part.
exclusion, by Kenneth Lin. Directed by Trip Cullman. Costume Design, Sarah Cubbage; Lighting, Adam Honoré; Ton, Sun Hee Kil; Original music, Hsin-Lei Chen; Battle Direction, Sordelet Inc. Approximately 90 minutes. $56-95. Until June 25 at the Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. arenastage.org.