IT'S almost as if the script for "Shimada," a dramatic mystery opening tonight on Broadway, were taken straight from the morning headlines. The East-West economic and cultural issues under the spotlight are that contemporary.
The story, actually written six years ago by Australian playwright Jill Shearer, centers on Japan's expanding economic role. A gift-bearing Japanese businessman arrives in a small Australian town to help rescue a struggling bicycle business. The sales manager, played by veteran Hollywood actor Ben Gazzara, is convinced that the present-day rescuer is actually Shimada, the cruel Japanese guard who almost killed him in a Burmese prisoner-of-war camp during World War II. The manager's memories recur as a vi vid series of flashbacks.
The play, performed by a star-studded cast of Oscar and Tony Award winners that includes Ellen Burstyn, Mako, and Estelle Parsons, makes no mention of recent Japanese criticism of the American work ethic, exhortations to "buy American," or Nintendo's proposed purchase of the Seattle Mariners.
Yet those watching the play in the context of such news and the tensions it evokes will find some striking parallels.
"Shimada" is part of an unusually prolific Broadway season of 38 new plays. That number is one-third higher than last season's total. In a milieu that has for some time been more inclined toward plays about personal problems from relationships to health, this drama takes on a red-hot political issue in the context of a personal story.
Ms. Shearer's play is the only one ever on the Great White Way to offer simultaneous translation into a foreign language - Japanese - via headsets. A four-page Japanese insert in the program had American preview audiences asking: "Do they read from right to left?"
The play's producers note that 120,000 Japanese live and work in the New York area. More than 400,000 more visit each year as tourists. Many of those in the past, says Shimada co-producer Richard Seader, went to musicals or plays with familiar plots to skirt the language barrier.
The characters in the two roles played by Mako, the Japanese-born actor who came to the United States at the age of 15 to study architecture, are not particularly flattering to Japan. Yet director Simon Phillips, who first directed the play in 1987 at its premiere in Melborne, says most Japanese consider the play "balanced."
Those concerned that the portrayals may offend the Japanese, he says, are Westerners who tend to view the issue subjectively.
"I think the play lays everyone's preconceptions and prejudices and paranoias right out on the table," says Mr. Phillips. "People come, and hopefully leave, having had their own points of view expressed and brought into contention with others that maybe they hadn't thought of."
Yet Phillips and others closely involved with the play see the overall message as positive - a call for the East and West to move forward together and cooperate economically.
The producers deliberately sought out Japanese investment for the play. The idea was to get sort of a "Good Housekeeping seal of approval," says co-producer Paul Berkowsky, to "dispel any lingering notions that this might be an anti-Japanese play which it is not....
"There are as many things the Japanese did that they're ashamed of as we did that we're ashamed of. The play is quite open about that - it talks about Hiroshima, for instance."
Osaka businessman Nobunao Furuyama liked the play and its message. Grateful in particular for American aid to Japan after the war and the prep-school education his youngest son now receives in Maryland, he contributed $480,000, almost one-third of the play's capitalization cost.
Despite the timeliness of the play's issues, playwright Shearer says the story came together for her over a period of several years. She worked for 13 years as executive assistant to five successive Japanese consuls in Brisbane. Some former Australian soldiers, she recalls, began to return ceremonial swords taken during World War II to the Japanese, and she saw other evidence of "healing" in the long-bitter relations between the two countries.
Yet Shearer's concern over time, she says, was that Australia seemed to be "losing its grip" and "getting left behind." She notes that the Japanese, the top landholders in Australia in terms of property value, were "on the ball" in going for prime beach land, resorts, and other "good moneymakers." At one point the Estelle Parsons character in the play likens the corporate Japanese appetite for foreign investment to a boa constrictor that swallows everything in its path, including a cat. It is a vivid ima ge that brought a loud laugh from a preview audience.
Shearer readily concedes that the play somewhat "frightened" her even as she was writing it. She insists that the brutal character of Shimada, however, is fictional. "I never do a character based on a person," she says. "I certainly drew on quite a range of Japanese that I have met."
AKO says he has no qualms as an American of Japanese descent in playing the harsh role of Shimada, because a large part of the character lives only in the sales manager's subjective recollections.
"That part doesn't bother me in the least - there may well have been people like that," he says.
Yet he concedes that as an actor he wishes that the polite character of the Japanese businessman had been more fully explored.
Co-producer Berkowsky says he first learned of the play in 1987 while reading a brief Variety review about the Melborne performance.
"I really hadn't heard of anything written for the stage about this whole East-West economic conflict," he recalls, "and I thought the idea of dealing with the two time zones was fascinating." He sent for the script and showed it to his partner. "We agreed that this was a play we really had to do," says Mr. Seader.
Later, as the reaction to growing Japanese purchases in the US shifted from initial chuckles to increasing concern and both the US and Japan began leveling direct volleys of criticism at one another after President Bush's January visit to Tokyo, the producers realized they had a "tiger by the tail," says Mr. Berkowsky.
One point of early debate was whether or not to shift the play's setting from Australia to the US. "We all felt that the metaphor of East and West, taking place in an exotic locale like Australia and Burma was probably as powerful and less threatening than if it happened in Kansas or Omaha," says Berkowsky.
"It's also a security blanket of sorts, because you realize it isn't only happening to us," adds Seader.
Another question is whether or not Americans need a conclusion at the play's close. Pointing to US movies as an example, Mr. Phillips says he thinks many Americans like such summaries. Still, he resists. "I think a good play makes you question things."
Director Shearer agrees: "All we're meant to do, I feel, is throw a beam of light on a situation."
Finally, concern remains over whether to cast the play in the present or to roll back the date to 1991. In recent months the pace of Japanese buyouts in the US has tapered and Tokyo's stock market troubles have persuaded many Americans that Japan is not as economically invulnerable as they once thought.
Yet, as Berkowsky notes, such a "roller coaster" of economic developments also underscores the interdependence of such national economies. "This is not a time to gloat," he says. Both Berkowsky and Seader concur that the message of "Shimado" - that the hope of the future lies in moving forward cooperatively - is as key now as when Shearer first wrote her play.