[Note: This is a review of the Soho Rep production now at the MCC Theater with two cast changes: Christopher Barrow now plays Peer and Brian Quijada now plays Ryan. ]
Hansol Jung’s Wolf Play is a fantasy on several levels but it is also rather confusing in its details. Inspired by the true case of an Asian adoptee who was “re-homed” on the Internet when his new American parents no longer wanted him, the play also conflates this with the idea of the lone wolf who does not assimilate into a society of like animals. In addition, the Korean adoptee is played by a puppet that is manipulated by a character called “Wolf.” The author who is particularly interested in the families we choose makes the new parents a queer entity, adding another level of complication to the storyline.
Dustin Wills’ production for the Soho Rep in association with Ma-Yi Theatre Company is messy and confusing as scenes in two locations often take place on the same set without any indication that we are in two locales at the same time. The shabby props and scenic design make the play look amateurish rather than suggest an economically deprived family. The cast which is very diverse adds to the confusion. While the script says that Wolf (who manipulates the little boy puppet) should be Asian, like the child, in this case he does not appear to be so.
Robin has arranged to adopt a three-year- old boy on Yahoo.com but without clearing it first with her wife, the nonbinary Ash who is busy preparing for a first bout as a professional boxer. When Peter arrives in San Francisco from Arizona with Peter, Jr. (played by a puppet), it turns out he is six, not three. Peter was also unaware that this was a same-sex family. without a father. At first not speaking, the boy eventually tells them his real name is Jeenu, not Peter. He bonds with Ash, who does not want to be distracted from training with Robin’s brother Ryan, the owner and manager of the boxing club where Ash trains, as their first professional bout is coming up. However, much of the time Jeenu exhibits aggressive, wolf-like outbursts and has trouble becoming adjusted to his new life. He eventually tells them that he is a wolf, his way of dealing with his two adoptions.
Eventually, Peter breaks up with his unseen wife and comes back to reclaim his child. This leads to a court trial and an ironic ending. While the issues raised by the play are both important and revelatory, something most of us do not know about, the play with its many layers of complication does not do it justice. Having the child played by a puppet who is manipulated by a Wolf is a bit too fanciful. The subplot about Ash’s pro-boxing career seems completely extraneous to the main theme.
The acting seems one-dimensional with all of the characters only involved with one issue each. Esco Jouléy as Ash, Brandon Mendez Homer as Ryan, Aubie Merrylees as Peter and Nicole Villamil as Robin do the best they can with underwritten roles and gaps in the storyline. In the complex role of Wolf, Mitchell Winter is asked to be too many things all at the same time. The ramshackle production design by You-Shin Chen requires much moving around of furniture before each scene, as well as having one half of the audience facing the other half which tends to becoming distracting the way the play is lit. Enver Chakartash’s casual contemporary costumes are completely suitable to the story and characters, but Barbara Samuels’ lighting fails to create any mood whatever. Amanda Villalobos’ puppet design is rather awkward and clumsy, drawing attention to itself for all the wrong reasons.
One admires the Soho Rep for continuing to find and stage experimental plays but not all avant-garde plays work. While Wolf Play is about timely social problems, the production and the presentation only overcomplicate the play. With its heart in the right place, the play seems to take on too many social issues all at the same time.
Wolf Play (return engagement:: January 26 – April 2, 2023)
Soho Rep in association with Ma-Yi Theatre Company
The Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space
Susan and Ronald Frankel Theater, 515 W. 52nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 646-508-9393 or visit http://www.MCCTheater,org
Running time: one hour and 50 minutes