Grown kids coming to terms with failed relationships with their parents has always been fertile dramatic territory. As it covers this time-worn terrain, The Nosebleed, a compact and peculiar work written and directed by Aya Ogawa, deserves credit for its singular storytelling approach.
That’s not exactly the same as saying this autobiographical play at Lincoln Center Theater completely succeeds and satisfies. Beyond some too-pronounced performances, the key character of the author’s father is a bit too vague and generic for his — and the play’s — own good.
Distinctive high-def details are essential in a work in which Ogawa bluntly declares they hated their father — so much that they didn’t lift a finger to honor him when he died 15 years ago. No memorial. No viewing. Nothing. A funeral director in the play is stunned at the failure to pay tribute to one’s father.
Confronting that monumental failure is what this show is all about, and at times it feels like a public confessional and therapy session. Unfolding in a series of vignettes over 70 minutes, the play is like a jigsaw puzzle whose pieces don’t all neatly interlock.
Ogawa, who plays their dad and younger son, has no shortage of theatrical tricks. Break the fourth wall? Constantly. Interact with the audience? Over and over. We’re asked for a show of hands: “Who here loves their father?” “Who here hates their father?” We’re given a sheet of paper and a pencil and instructions. Volunteers are recruited to come up on stage.
Ogawa is played by four actors — Ashil Lee, Kaili Y. Turner, Saori Tsukada, and Drae Campbell — who also assume other roles. Each reveals a personal failure at the top of the show. Two such missteps involve pets and are inconsequential enough to be superfluous.
The production is spare and simple — a bare stage and a few sticks of furniture, street clothes, and efficient lighting — while the narrative is all over the map. The script raids reality TV, including a reenacted scene from The Bachelorette. A potential suitor admits to not talking with his father for two years and asks: “Is it my responsibility to reach out?” The moment echoes Ogawa’s thorny family dynamics, sure, but it seems a silly and arbitrary way to underscore a point.
We learn that the traumatic titular bloody nose is suffered by Ogawa’s 5-year-old son during a trip to Japan, where they were born and schooled before moving to California with their parents. Chris Manley plays a White Guy (as he’s listed in the cast of characters), a walking-and-talking cultural divide who questions Ogawa’s accent. His presence is a bit of a head-scratcher, but shows Ogawa’s role as a parent.
Ogawa recalls having only two conversations with their father, an executive who was better at business and bill-paying than communicating and showing love. That characterization feels very familiar. One talk involved college tuition; the other was about the failure of his marriage.
After their dad’s death, Ogawa marveled and recoiled at what he left behind. There was his odd-lot collection of Members Only jackets, boom boxes and chairs, an obituary he wrote for himself, a drawing of the late Princess Diana and, in an unsettling twist, a legal document linking him to sexual harassment. Can you ever really know a person?
Late in the play, audience members are asked to jot down questions they’d like to ask their father. Ogawa shrewdly incorporates them into a better-late-than-never ceremonial send-off that is by turns mysterious, touching and truly out there. It threads together Japanese Buddhist tradition, the People’s Princess, and the pop classic “My Way.” The song is fitting to describe Ogawa’s dramatic atonement.
Photo credit: Saori Tsukada, Ashil Lee, Drae Campbell and Kaili Y. Turner in The Nosebleed. (Photo by Julieta Cervantes)