New York — Family Devotions. Play by David Henry Hwang. Directed by Robert Allan Ackerman.
David Henry Hwang's new play starts out as the very model of a modern genre comedy within an ethnic milieu. The setting is the sunroom and backyard of a posh home in Bel Air, Calif., stylishly designed by David Gropman. Three generations of a Chinese-American family are waiting on a pleasant Sunday afternoon for the arrival of a revered relative from a homeland remembered only by the group's two elderly sisters.
Tine Chen (Ama) and June Kim (Popo) give wonderfully comic performances as a pair of old parties from the old country. They are garrulously opinionated about everything from the detested Japanese (one of their in-laws is Nisei) and the even more detested Communists to the appropriate career for the youngest member of the family. Pretty little Jenny (Lauren Tom) finally gives up trying to explain to them that she cannot pursue her chosen career as a dancer and still study to be a dental technician.
This is, however, but one of the ways in which Mr. Hwang makes comic and satiric drama out of culture and generation gaps. It is Di-Gou (Victor Wong) and his much anticipated visit that produce the play's central misapprehensions and confrontations. Ama and Popo recall Di-Gou as a child prodigy evangelist, the little Christian whose mother seems to have been a kind of Oriental Aimee Semple McPherson. Di-Gou in person turns out to be an elderly little stranger, neatly blue suited, who has left childhood Christianity behind him and who at one point produces a small red flag.
For the most part, Mr. Hwang revels in the comic incongruities and broad satirical possibilities of the situation. ''Family Devotions'' relishes the Americanized family's assimilation into the ways of microwave ovens, cassette tape players, and other bounties of capitalist consumerism. In one wonderfully farcical scene, the hapless Di-Gou tries to cope with a tennis-ball serving machine gone wildly out of control. Here as elsewhere, director Robert Allan Ackerman exploits the script's manifold opportunities.
A sudden darker side to ''Family Devotions'' emerges at a family prayer meeting with Di-Gou's disillusioning recital of his actual childhood recollections. At this point - and it does stretch credulity - the two old sisters become raging fanatics, attempting literally to beat the devil out of the astonished Di-Gou. The denouement is, to say the least, baffling.
Like Mr. Hwang's earlier plays, ''Family Devotions'' contains a mystic element. It is expressd here in a touching scene, remarkably played by Mr. Wong, in which Di-Gou exercises a kind of ancestral spell over young Chester (Marc Hayashi), the grand-nephew about to leave home for a violinist's post with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
''Family Devotions'' is not merely parochial. It reflects Mr. Hwang's capacity for discerning the universal.