THE theater pieces of Ping Chong are so sensitive, at their best, that they become a kind of poetry. And like most poets, Chong has a favorite theme, which crops up over and over in his work: sympathy for the outsider, and compassion for the individual who hasn't found a comfortable place in the world but won't stop trying. In pursuing this theme through plays and mixed-media shows, Chong has proved himself one of the most gifted innovators on today's theater scene. His new play, a comedy called ``Kindness,'' marks an engaging new step in his progress.
The main characters are six youngsters who do the usual youngster things -- attending school, going on dates, and doing their best to jump the hurdles of modern urban life. What's unusual is that one of them, whose name is Buzz, hap pens to be a gorilla. He's a smart and personable gorilla, to be sure, and he keeps up with his friends just fine. But he can't help feeling -- well, a little different.
While this is an amusing premise for a play, it also crystallizes Chong's concern with outsiders, unwilling loners, and ap parent misfits. In the hands of a less benevolent playwright/director, ``Kindness'' could have been a very sad story instead of the outgoing comedy it is.
Chong has too much affection for Buzz, though, to make him squirm very much in a hostile world. True, the gorilla's heritage and ancestry are a universe away from those of his pals, and this is made poignantly clear when some of Buzz's simian squeals are translated as a touching soliloquy on bygone days in the forest. But kids can adapt to anything when given half a chance, and that goes for hairy ones, too. Buzz copes with every challenge he meets -- better than some of his ``normal'' peers, whose lives and personalities are explored in equal detail by the amiably democratic Chong.
And herein lies the irony that makes ``Kindness'' much more than an everyday entertainment. Other youngsters in the play, faced with less daunting challenges, grow up no more happily or successfully than Buzz does. Meanwhile our gorilla friend, as ``assimilated'' as a foreigner can be, loses the qualities that made him special as well as those that made him different. In a stunning final scene, involving a ``real'' gorilla in a zoo, we see how ``human'' Buzz has managed to become -- and it's a revelation more bitter than sweet.
In a move away from the extravagant images and movements that have marked such Chong works as ``Nuit Blanche'' and ``A Race,'' the modest ``Kindness'' is played on a bare stage with only a few chairs for props. Yet its contents are as diverse as they are diverting, with a range that stretches from sly wordplay to silent-movie slapstick. Nodding to Chong's multimedia background, it even includes a slide-show aimed at instructing us (with sardonic humor) in the concepts of similarity and difference, which are at the heart of the work.
Performed with easy charm by Chong's own troupe, the Fiji Company, and sporting a splendid lighting design by Blu, the deftly constructed play continues at La Mama through May 25.