Like attracts like. Or something like. Despite the best efforts of sociologists to pin down the hows and whys of human attraction, there are always, always, exceptions to the rule. In Cowboy v. Samurai, Michael Golamco's freshly acute (and hilarious) reinvention of the classic Cyrano de Bergerac story, characters negotiate the sketchy terrain of romantic attraction as they wrestle with expectations, reservations, pride, and prejudice. The National Asian American Theater Company has produced a superb incarnation of Golamco's script. Welcome to Breakneck, Wyo., where out of 1,000 inhabitants, only two are Asian: our Cyrano, Travis (Jose de la Fuente), a high school English teacher who escaped from Los Angeles after a disastrous relationship, and Chester (C.S. Lee), the assistant manager at Taco Tuesday, the only ethnic restaurant in town. (The irony isn't lost on him.) The militant Chester also leads the Breakneck Asian Alliance (population of two), but everything changes when Veronica (Hana Moon), a beautiful Korean woman from Flushing, Queens, arrives to teach biology at the high school.
Travis and Veronica strike up a fast friendship, swapping stories about their families and lamenting the lack of tofu at the local grocery store. As the conversation shifts to past relationships, however, Travis is offended when it becomes apparent that Veronica, as a rule, does not date Asian men. "Race has nothing to do with attraction," Travis argues, but it is clear that, at least for Veronica, race figures predominantly into the equation.
Although he is falling for Veronica, Travis knows better than to pursue her; instead, he decides to help his friend Del (Timothy Davis) win her over. Del is a lovable, dimwitted hunk of a cowboy who teaches phys ed at the high school. While he is also smitten with Veronica, Del is threatened by her intellect and enlists Travis to write letters to her on his behalf.
Travis's letters are poignant, clever, humorous, and wise, and, at least from our perspective, they could not possibly be written by Del, who uses "dumb" as a noun. But Veronica, after ascertaining that Del's sock drawer contains no Asian porn, happily launches into a relationship with her Wyoming cowboy. When things begin to turn sour, however, she turns to Travis for comfort. The secret of Travis's masquerade inevitably leaks out, and he must face his fears and restraints, while Veronica must account for, as Travis calls them, her "preferences."
Under Lloyd Suh's polished direction, the cast delivers crystal-clear performances. At the show's center, de la Fuente gives a graceful arc to his performance, effectively evoking the complexity of Travis's friendship with Del and the angst of his growing affection for Veronica. Moon makes a lovely Veronica, and she puts aside her sarcastic exterior to find something more delicate in a late-night confrontation with Chester. Thankfully, Davis moves beyond the stereotype of the hick cowboy; instead, his Del is an intriguing portrayal of a sheltered local boy forced to expand his perspective.
With expert comic delivery and impeccable physicality, Lee all but steals the show as Chester. An Asian man of indeterminate heritage (his adoptive parents never took the trouble to find out where he was born), Chester grew up in Wyoming as a self-described "island of yellow in a sea of white." Without any definite lineage to draw from, he adopts aspects of Asian culture to create his own Asian-ness, as it were. Chester worships Bruce Lee (the "Gospel of Bruce"), dresses as a ninja (complete with grappling hook), and criticizes Veronica for "playing a piano without any sharps or flats" (dating only white guys).
While it contributes to the show's humor, Chester's insatiable desire for racial definition also stirs up pathos. He wrestles with isolation and rage, and his aforementioned confrontation with Veronica exposes the self-hatred that paralyzes them both.
The show's design is strong overall, but Stephen Petrilli's lighting is a standout. As Del reads from his (actually Travis's) letters, he is bathed in a spotlight; Travis sits at his desk in the background, where only subtle streaks of light touch his face. Late in the show, Travis says, "When you write something down, you become the words." In this expert bit of staging, he sits out of the light