The set of Fruiting Bodies impresses you right away. Realistic trees grow from the mossy stage and leer down at audience members from above. Leaves and branches litter this natural arena and invite humans to tread them with impunity. A cacophony of forest sounds complete the picture.
Soon enough, actors flit through this natural playground. There’s the grumbly Thom Sesma, who plays a lonely mushroom hunter named Ben, and Kimiye Corwin and Emma Kikue, who imbue his bickering daughters Mush and Vicky with gleeful sarcasm. However, the MVP of Fruiting Bodies is surely Jeffrey Omura, who switches between various roles with ease and brings much-needed buoyancy to the play’s often mordant proceedings.
With Bodies, playwright Sam Chanse attempts to explore the realities of Japanese-American culture in the 21st century, but gets lost in the process. Bodies is at its core an exploration of familial ties and meaningful human connections, as is made clear by the time it reaches its multiple emotional climaxes. Its monologues about mushrooms and self-worth suggest a more ambitious artistic treatise, but ultimately weaken those other core themes.
Director Shelley Butler stages the material mostly effectively, with one notable exception occurring during the aforementioned emotional climaxes. Chanse seems to have written the climaxes to occur simultaneously, and Butler doubles down on this confusing decision by having the actors talk over each other and interrupt their own heightened emotional states. Still, the set itself is effectively eerie, and Butler traffics in an appropriately phantasmagoric atmosphere with the help of the show’s lighting designer, Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew, and sound designer, Kate Marvin. A truly creepy moment arrives when the trees on the set suddenly shift, establishing not only new locations but the shifting perspectives of the characters.
But while those trees are an appropriately surreal touch, the play’s other stab at surrealism falls short. Much is made of the set’s “comfy” rock, which is very clearly a beanbag chair that has been made to look like a rock. But calling it “comfy” to justify the fact that the characters can hurl themselves on it without risking severe bodily injury is just lazy writing.
There are so many great ideas in Fruiting Bodies — but just like the mushrooms it pays homage to, it still needs time to grow.
Fruiting Bodies (through May 9, 2019)
Ma-Yi Theater Company
The Clurman Theatre on Theatre Row, 410 W. 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.ma-yitheatre.org
Rnning time: one hour and 40 minutes without an intermission