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Distant Observer: Tokyo/New York Correspondence

A Tokyo murder mystery is the springboard for this visually striking but disjointed performance piece with sequences alternatively written by two authors.

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Kotoba Dan and Samuel Im in a scene from John Jesurun and Takeshi Kawamura’s “Distant Observer: Tokyo/New York Correspondence” (Photo credit: Paula Court)


Darryl Reilly, Critic

For its first half, the Tokyo-set performance piece Distant Observer: Tokyo/New York Correspondence is a witty take on a murder mystery. The second half loses momentum as the plot is set aside for nonsensical surrealistic detours that are not very involving. Still, the show is strikingly presented, wonderfully performed and only lasts about an hour.

Noted theater artist John Jesurun wrote the opening sequence. From 2014 to 2017, Mr. Jesurun engaged in a collaboration with Japanese playwright and director Takeshi Kawamura. They each wrote alternating 10-minute sections with Aya Ogawa translating the Japanese portions into English.  This technique is an homage to the Japanese poetical form renga where different authors contribute to a poem.

As with William S. Burroughs’ cut-up literary works where pre-existing texts are joined together, narrative coherence is of little concern here. The dialogue ranges from realistic to silly terseness and to playful verbosity.

A 29-year-old Japanese man confesses to his American girlfriend who works in the U.S. embassy that he spent 10 years in prison for murdering his previous girlfriend. She’s upset at this revelation and breaks up with him. Also involved are the sisters of the murdered woman and the American woman’s colleague. The plot thickens as there’s the possibility that the dead woman may have actually committed suicide and the man was covering this up to save her family from shame.

Samuel Im, Kyle Griffiths, Anastasia Olowin and Claire Buckingham in a scene from John Jesurun and Takeshi Kawamura’s “Distant Observer: Tokyo/New York Correspondence” (Photo credit: Paula Court)

After getting fired from his chauffer’s job, he reinvents himself as a street cart sushi chef.  The film noir premise now is abandoned for a Luis Buñuel-style series of Kafkaesque vignettes as it all amiably and pointlessly plays out.

A magic forest with dragons and a cataclysmic fire are described and there are hints of The Manchurian Candidate-style brain washing. Along the way are topical references to the Olympics, Mexican immigrants, “building a wall,” and depictions of a totalitarian fantasyland. Other absurd tangents have the cast singing a Nirvana song while dancing.  There’s a riff about Neil Young’s song “Sugar Mountain.”

The cast gamely embraces their contrived roles with fierce and rich characterizations that perfectly suit the material.

The boyish Samuel Im is solidly heroic as the central figure. Mr. Im marvelously veers from low-key to emotionally expressive. As his neurotic girlfriend, Anastasia Olowin is delightfully wound up and steely. Claire Buckingham is a comic dynamo as the dead woman’s loquacious sister who spends a lot of time trying to give away $20,000. Japanese performer Kotoba Dan employs a native accent for hilarious effect that combined with her empathetic vocal delivery is quite charming. The wiry, bespectacled, suited and youthful Kyle Griffiths is chilling and intensely humorous as an embassy bureaucrat.

Jesuran has staged everything with aesthetic flair utilizing the high caliber technical elements that include his fluid scenic design to optimum visual effect.

Claire Buckingham and Anastasia Olowin in a scene from John Jesurun and Takeshi Kawamura’s “Distant Observer: Tokyo/New York Correspondence” (Photo credit: Paula Court)

The rectangular stage is divided in half by curtains with the audience seated separately. Jesuran’s dreamy video design of flowers, trees and abstract images are often projected onto the curtains. Actors stand at microphones and speak as their image is projected onto the curtain. Eventually the curtains are drawn and the entire stage is used. The configuration alternates back and forth throughout the presentation.

Lighting designer Jeff Nash’s fluctuating hues vigorously complement the variety of tones and locations on display. At times the space resembles a 1940’s Hollywood sound stage due to Mr. Nash’s smoky dimness. This quality is reinforced by the Bernard Herrmann-sounding score that is periodically played.

By its nature Distant ObserverTokyo/New York Correspondence’s novel construction doesn’t really allow it to develop into anything more than a mildly intriguing theatrical parlor game with its brevity a major asset.

Distant Observer: Tokyo/New York Correspondence (through April 1, 2018)

La MaMa E.T.C.

Ellen Stewart Theatre, 66 East 4th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit

Running time: 70 minutes with no intermission


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