People, by USP Productions
Written by Joel Tan, Directed by Ng Yin Ling
26 January 2013, 2pm, Arts House Play Den
People is an impressionistic piece that weaves through the lives of 14 characters to explore a central theme, people’s relations with each other. Played by six cast members, the idea is well-executed and pleasurable to watch, but it suffers from a lack of ambition. Although the playwright largely succeeds in making us empathise with a wide range of characters, the stories in themselves are not very strong and too shallow to throw any new insight on the subject.
That is not necessarily in itself a flaw. The play is stylistically excellent, confidently zipping back and forth in time, to and fro from New York to Tokyo to Singapore, and between nine different segments. The danger to this sort of arrangement is that (1) it will feel too weightless, being too disparate, (2) it will be too confusing with so many characters, and (3) it will be paced wrongly, spending too much time on certain segments to the underdevelopment of others. By and large, the play evades all these pitfalls. This is to the credit of the director who cannily intersperses humour with tragedy, and ensures no story overstays its welcome.
A major reason why this is so is the strength of the cast, who each are stretched with at least two roles each. The script uses 14 different characters to develop many different kinds of relationships, and it is crucial to its success that they are sufficiently differentiated and convincing. Some efforts are not successes, being unconvincing and underdeveloped. For example, the segment with the priest who loses God because of the death of his sister evokes a lot of generic pain and grief, and his calling of a number on a toilet wall is simply too ridiculous and hyperbolic to be convincing. Neither is the weepy story of Hock, who spends his money on a ticket to New York to seek his lover, Chris, and decides to commit suicide after learning that he is at a pub. But others are touching and convincing portrayals. Abigail Thio does well impersonating a bar hostess who is repulsed by the false, gilded affection of lonely men with money and finds love in a caring male prostitute. Both the characters of Susan and Lily benefit from a lightness of touch not present in the male monologues.
All this is to say that the play was successful in its impressionistic evocation of the joy, pain, and necessity of relationships in all shapes and forms. However, it is not without its flaws. Although the characters are written and acted well, the stories they tell are often thin and unremarkable.
This is a qualified criticism. Perhaps it is not its purpose to really push the boundaries of the nature of human relationships. Perhaps the point is precisely the prevalence of the many relatively mundane situations that can build up so many different kinds of emotions in us. But I think I have seen this all before. For example, Lily, Qing, and Nicholas all suffer from that vaguely defined longing to escape loneliness familiar to us all; presenting it in another skin is entertaining enough but not memorable. There could also have been more exploration of the nature and source of the feelings expressed. For example, in the story of the estranged sisters, Valerie and Natalie, Natalie is merely constantly expressing a longing to make up with her sister, a convincing emotion that is nevertheless dumb about what else it is but a feeling.
Ultimately, People brings us to many emotions that arise out of the complexity of relationships, but does not really give us much insight to any of these.