Silliness and whimsy can often be admirable qualities in a play, but not when taken to the degree playwright Julia Izumi has in her new work, Regretfully, So the Birds Are, a co-production of and WP Theater and the Playwrights Horizons where the show has been well launched.
Regretfully, directed by Jenny Koons, centers on the trials and tribulations of the Whistler family: mother, Elinore, in prison for burning her husband alive; Illy and Neel, brother and sister who want to marry each other; sister Mora the cynical third sibling; and Cam, the dead father who has morphed into a snowman.
You-Shin Chen’s witty scenery supports all of Izumi’s imaginative leaps. Divided into several discrete playing areas, it makes the most of the Playwrights Horizons’ stage.
Dead center is the couch in front of a half-burnt wall and damaged family portrait—the dad’s face obliterated by charring. On one side, a cartoony tree house and on the other, a wintery lawn filled with a fluffy white cardboard snowman, its head opening hinged to allow Cam, aka dad (Gibson Frazier, goofily funny) to peep through and add his quips to the proceedings. Down front, jailbird Elinore (Kristine Nielsen, gruff and funny) sits in her prison chair.
Regretfully opens innocently enough as Illy (Sasha Diamond, wide-eyed and sweet) and Neel (Sky Smith, eager and sweet) laze the night away in their private tree house, counting stars and consider buying their own personal space in the heavens. Innocent that is until they reveal that, though they are brother and sister—admittedly not blood relatives—they have been having a passionate affair for years.
Revealing this secret to their astonished and revolted sister Mora causes repercussions that reverberate as Illy and Neel detail the origins of their attraction.
Mora runs off to pursue her own demons including visiting her extremely hostile mom in jail only to find out that mom thinks this sexual liaison between siblings is a sign of a happy family! Elinore also is hopelessly inept at remembering the country where she found Mora, only noting that it began with a “C.”
All three siblings, now in their late twenties, adopted from Asian countries, desperately want to find their actual birth mothers and set about doing this in bizarre ways, complicated by the inane utterings of Cam the Snowman. The girls’ slapdash methods include stopping every woman in their birth countries until they find who they want. And, you know what? They find what they are looking for despite odds that rank with winning the lottery.
Neel, on the other hand goes off to Nebraska for some reason, only to find it “flat.”
Much is made of Illy’s musical talents. She’s a violist with an orchestra while Neel, unfortunately, is tone deaf. (More and more quirks.)
Nielsen, Frazier and another cast member, Pearl Sun (called Srey in the program notes, a narrator-type character who poetically elucidates the birth story of one of the siblings and declares herself, wrongly it turns out, Mora’s birth mother) also play other characters including a chorus of very red birds chirping, squawking and honking in the comic high point of the show, a karaoke performance totally in “bird.”
There are many tangents to the plot that never quite gel. Izumi seems to be seriously influenced by Ionesco (weird coincidences), Beckett (lots of non sequiturs) and even Albee (normal looking family with deep dysfunctions and witty wordplay). There is even some sly political commentary and frequent acknowledgement that they are in a play—“Oh, a spotlight.”
In other words, Regretfully, So the Birds Are is a congenial mess that never quite makes a rational point other than showing off Izumi’s cleverness.
Alicia J. Austin has provided totally appropriate costumes and Stacey Derosier has lit the production with great subtly.
Koons did what she could to make the disparate lines of the play cohesive, but ultimately failed.
Regretfully, So the Birds Are (through April 30, 2023)
Playwrights Horizons and WP Theater
Peter Jay Sharp Theater, 416 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-279-4200 or visit http://www.phnyc.org
Running time: 90 minutes without an intermission