German political theorist Carl Schmitt once noted that all politics is based on the distinction between friends and enemies. Considering that he was an unrepentant Nazi, he had much insight into the Fascist strategy of politically dividing citizens into two mutually hostile groups; in our increasingly partisan times, the distinction seems to capture something on the minds of many Americans. To speak of a “good enemy,” then, is either a shot across the bow or a windmilling disavowal of political reality.
Good Enemy is also the name of a new play by Yilong Liu, now running at Minetta Lane Theater, that reels us in with its ouroboros of a title. Is it a euphemism? A defiant proclamation? A hand grenade lobbed at politics? A sign of equivocation? A late-in-life lament? The play starts innocently enough: A hale if not particularly hearty Chinese man named Howard (Francis Jue) has survived year one of the Covid-19 pandemic and, freshly vaccinated, is traveling from his home in the “characterless” San Gabriel Valley to Brooklyn to surprise his college-age daughter Momo (Geena Quintos) for her upcoming birthday. He has been feeling estranged from his daughter since his wife died, and in good helicopter-parenting fashion, wants to talk to Momo about several things, including why she’s been making risqué TikToks (which he insists on calling “videos,” to her dismay), and participating in protests, even as Asian women are being assaulted or killed just for walking down the street.
Momo, who is currently living with her white boyfriend, Jeff (Ryan Spahn), has no idea of her dad’s imminent arrival. Making things more awkward, Howard has enlisted Momo’s ex-boyfriend Dave (Alec Silver) to drive him from California to Momo’s apartment. Dave is an aspiring screenwriter who moonlights as a pot dealer to adolescents and is described in the script as “Don Quixotesque.” He’s actually more of a bossy Boswell, constantly pestering Howard during their cross-country trip to talk about how he “escaped from death row in communist China.” Or, as Howard snarkily puts it, “You want to turn my past into feel-good democracy porn, for your stupid Hollywood fantasy.”
He’s not entirely wrong about Dave, but lately, Howard has also been getting pressure from his college-age daughter, who is “sick of feeling like a book whose first chapter is missing,” to unspool his life’s story. For the past 20 years, Howard has been a stolid seawall of resistance. No more. Jue’s Howard is an inverted comma; he has a slight stoop as if bent from a lifetime of carrying a great burden, and he has a way of turtling his head back and forth when emphasizing a point. Against his better judgment, his story gets parceled out bit by bit to Dave, who has the presence of mind to record their conversations during the drive.
The first thing to know about Howard is that he was not always Howard. In a former life, he was known as Hao (Tim Liu), a tetchy teen with an overactive bladder who, when we first meet him, is training to become a police officer with the Communist Party. His commanding officer, Xiong (Ron Domingo), says that Hao is the “perfect candidate,” since he’s both handsome and can write—a skill that will come in handy when making incriminating reports about “hooligans” who fraternize with foreign, i.e., Western, forces. Hao has been assigned to inveigle his way into the inner sanctum of the “enemy”—not all the way, but “just enough to give yourself credibility.”
At his first party hosted by the “enemy,” Hao meets a beguiling young woman named Jiahua (Jeena Yi). With her bright eyes and sunrise smile, she has charisma for days, and is quick to spot the newcomer lurking in their midst. Liu, on the other hand, plays Hao mostly in one key: a sulky adolescent with a tendency toward upspeak. His efforts to be nonchalant, sipping cup after cup of club soda, come off as, well, chalant. When agitated or provoked, he doesn’t so much speak as sneeze out his lines. Though he stands a head taller than Jiahua, his verbal and physical bumptiousness make him appear at least five years younger, more like a little brother than the potential love interest he is supposed to be.
The story of Hao and Jiahua’s relationship unfolds episodically. In one scene, we’re in 1980s China, with Hao and Jiahua conversing over contraband tapes of Joy Division. In another, we’re back in the present day, with Howard carrying on a halting conversation with Jeff using Google Translate, which probably deserves its own line in the cast list. In a way, the whole play is a Google translation of a conversation that the (mostly white) audience would presumably not otherwise understand. Though the characters all speak English, we are gradually led to understand that they are all speaking Chinese to each other—all except Jeff, whose lines are either meta-commentary on his not being fluent in Chinese or Englishified malapropisms—the birthright of budding polyglots. “Stupid google … learn some slangs!” cries an exasperated Jeff to his phone during one exchange. “Stupid American, learn a second language,” rebukes Howard, which gets a roaring laugh from the audience.
Junghyun Georgia Lee’s set is a literal tabula rasa, an off-white stage with two rectangular boxes that stand in for cars. Three square cutouts in the back wall collude with Reza Behjat’s lighting to shift us from the mise-en-scène of 1980s China to present-day Brooklyn. When Hao is training with Xiong, the cutout behind them is drenched in red; Momo’s notional apartment is represented by a backdrop of pink pooling into ochre. Waves of light undulating across the faces of Dave and Howard as they drive to Brooklyn smoothly transport us to a river in China, where Jiahua, in one of the play’s rare tender moments, strips to her undergarments and teaches a begrudging Hao to swim (a floor panel in the center of the stage yawns open to submerge the characters). The transitions between scenes are as effortlessly smooth as splash-free dives. Whenever the narrative rows back to the 1980s, Howard lingers downstage, just off to the side, in shadow. He looks wistfully upon his younger self in what Melville once called a “silent, grass-growing mood.” This, we come to realize, is no epic road movie, but neither is it a rueful elegy. It’s something much more ordinary that transcends cultural boundaries: one man stranded on the median strip of his mind, with his past trundling by on one side and his future whizzing by on the other.
In its gestures toward bilingualism, Good Enemy, directed by Chay Yew, joins a raft of recent plays dealing with the problems of translation, including the excellent English, by Sanaz Toossi; Lloyd Suh’s uneven The Chinese Lady; and the even less successful Golden Shield, by Anchuli Felicia King. That last play, in its bid to help a predominantly English-speaking audience understand Chinese colloquialisms, made the misguided decision to cast a besuited narrator as a kind of animatronic Clippy, constantly butting in to make the subtextual textual and crowding out any nuance. Good Enemy knows better than to resort to such superfluous ruses. The play instead traffics in unfussy realism, strewn with throwaway lines that, only in retrospect, feel espresso-dense with significance.
Ultimately, though, the gestures toward bilingualism remain only that: gestures. I found myself wondering what the effect would have been had Liu chosen to render some of Hao’s lines in his native tongue. That the characters speak to each other exclusively in English may make a certain logistical sense when the play is scheduled to be added to Audible later in 2023 (adding in another language would probably only increase the quotient of confusion for listeners who are bereft of visual aids). Yet the hegemonic presence of English in a play about Chinese characters can come across as both heavy-handed (the story lends itself all too easily to a triumphalist interpretation of Westernized Asians) and as a refusal of even an atom of ambiguity, not to mention the seven kinds that literary critic William Empson identified almost a hundred years ago. The (over)reliance on one tongue also retains some of the linguistic infelicities of using Google Translate. In their first encounter, at a party, Hao, clocking Jiahua’s combative curiosity, says, “All I’m saying is maybe you should stick your nose up someone else’s ass, bitch.” To which she responds, “Whoa, bring a gun to a knife fight.” As translations go, this is so beyond the pale for 1980s China as to verge on the self-parodic. Lines like these smack of the mangled transmissions in a game of Telephone. At the end of the play, Howard hands Momo the diary that he began as Hao. In it, one senses, his real story resides, waiting to be read. ❖
Rhoda Feng is a freelance writer based in New York whose work has appeared in 4Columns, The Baffler, BOMB, the White Review, Bookforum, Public Books, and the New Republic, among other publications.
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