The happy couple surrounded by, well, everyone. (L to R) Van Lang Pham, Kathy Hsieh, Elisabeth Ballstadt, Reeti Diwan, and Lee Yang in 'Washer/Dryer' from SIS Productions and Pratidhwani. Photo by Rick Wong.

In Comedy ‘Washer/Dryer’, a Tiny Apartment Is the Least of Claustrophobic Forces

Washer/Dryer lets a pair of newlyweds live their lives, without assigning them some higher purpose. If only their families and neighbors would do the same.

The co-production from SIS Productions and Pratidhwani runs through 9/22.  

 

The stage is often a place for characters of mythical proportions (or at least reputations) to grace, with unusual tales, surrounded by lavish scenery. But what about the rest of us?

Washer/Dryer, a modern play by Nandita Shenoy, sets out to show the other side. It springs from a family drama of difference in tradition and generational desires, when a young couple — Sonya, an Indian American woman, and Michael, a Chinese American man — elopes, predictably irking their family, with familial judgment arriving both in person and by suitcase in the lobby. And although the drama is often comically over-the-top, the story nonetheless centers around the oftentimes mundanity of making a relationship work, particularly when everyone else’s rules try to intercede.

In this case, the most overt challenges are the intrusions of a controlling mother/mother-in-law (“Doc-tor!” Lee, played by Kathy Hsieh) and the equally controlling, rule-touting co-op president Wendee (Elisabeth Ballstadt).

But are the intrusions really the source of conflict? The happy couple might not know much more about each other than the invaders do — and their marriage, it seems, stems mostly from impulsivity and one big misunderstanding. Well, that and a Las Vegas Groupon.

The opening exchanges, which include only the couple and an intercom, feel rigid; and it’s almost impossible not to ask, Why are these two married? There’s very little chemistry, and a lot of strife already; not the least of which, the threat of Sonya losing her hard-earned tiny Manhattan apartment (the one with that coveted in-unit washer/dryer) due to the building’s single-occupancy rules for studios that size.

Michael wants to move in above board, horrified at being viewed instead as her dalliance; Sonya, meanwhile, has no intention of giving up her home. Their supposedly star-crossed eloping quickly feels more like an impractical recipe for disaster, and the two spend more time at war with each other than enjoying one another.

That all changes when they find a common enemy: Dr. Lee, Michael’s mother. She shows up unannounced, stalking him home after giving him a present (a wok) at lunch, like something of a modern Trojan Horse. Her entrance into the picture changes not only the couple’s trajectory but their chemistry as well. Faced with a common foe, Michael has a more pressing target for his irritation, and Sonya is impressed with the resolve of his defense of her, and their relationship. It seems he’s learned; his last relationship, we find out, fell apart because he refused to take on his mother, who reduced his girlfriend to tears on their first (and presumably last) meeting.

Michael’s resolve aside, there’s no question that Hsieh as Dr. Lee is the dominant force on this stage, both in character and in the conviction that Hsieh brings to the role. Hsieh is downright salty, which gives flavor to her character’s comedy. Dr. Lee can’t understand why her son has married an Indian alcoholic with no job who can’t cook. (Her surmise of the facts; in reality, Sonya’s an actor, and Michael refuses to let his mom rifle through the fridge so he offers her wine instead.) She promptly sniffs out her daughter-in-law’s discomfort. (To Michael, after Sonya’s rote “pleasure to meet you”: “No one has ever found it pleasurable to meet me. Does she always lie?”)  And she expounds a practical view on modern romance. (“Lots of people fall in love, Michael. It’s nothing to get married over.”) It’s the frankness of her delivery that turns the chuckles to hearty guffaws.

And it’s Hsieh’s force in that character that seems to bring out the best from the other actors’ characters as well. They all do best with a target, it appears, and Dr. Lee has no trouble being adversaries with all of them.

A lengthy series has an enjoyable slapstick to it, as the nosy gay best friend/neighbor — designer Sam (Van Lang Pham) slinks around the apartment, quoting Tyra Banks and Tim Gunn; as Dr. Lee worms her way in; and as Wendee likewise stakes her claim illicitly, while moralizing about the rules.

Washer/Dryer doesn’t strive to be a “thought piece,” and there’s not much in the way of morals and deeper meanings, at least that I took away. But that’s a good thing, as the characters are allowed to exist, and quibble, and be in their own rights, without being saddled with a higher social purpose.

The result is a very fun show.

 

Washer/Dryer is a co-production of SIS Productions (centering work by and about Asian American women) and Pratidhwani (highlighting South Asian performing arts). Agastya Kohli directs. With intimacy direction by Alyssa Kay; scenic design by David Hsieh; costume and props design by Pallavi Agarwai and Swati Srivastav; lighting design by Richard Schaefer; sound design by Roger Tang; stage management by Grecia Leal Pardo; and additional production support by Roger Tang and Megan Dung. 


Washer/Dryer runs through 9/22 at Theatre Off Jackson in the International District. Tickets are $19, available here; pay-what-you-can performance on Monday, 9/16. Accessibility notes: restrooms are all gender-neutral, multi-stall; theatre is wheelchair accessible, through an alley entrance — please contact venue ahead of time to ensure smooth access.

Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.