Comedic crisis ensues in Cowboy Versus Samurai when the only two men of Asian descent in Breakneck, Wyoming (pop. 1,000) are joined by an Asian-American woman, who happens to prefer their white “cowboy” friend over either of them. This play by Michael Golamco, at the Long Beach Playhouse (LBPH) Studio Theatre through Aug. 19, cleverly explores Asian stereotyping and identity issues through the lenses of pointed humor and unrequited love.
Loosely using a trope from Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac, in which one man surreptitiously helps another seduce the woman they both love, the play makes visible the “masks that everyone wears,” as director Shinshin Yuder Tsai puts it. The idea of masks is especially resonant for the three Asian-American characters, but also relevant for their white friend who has never been out of Wyoming.
Travis (Lee Samuel Tanng) is a Los Angeles transplant and English teacher in Breakneck, making up 50 percent of the Breakneck Asian Club, founded by his militant friend Chester (Perry Pang), who’s not sure which Asian country he was adopted from. Veronica (Rosie Narasaki), a Korean-American science teacher from New York, soon arrives, her presence further fueling their cultural debates.
But while Veronica and Travis become easy friends, and he develops feelings for her, she falls for the cowboy-ish Del (Christian Skinner) after Travis helps him write letters for her in words Del is not capable of conjuring.
Del recites those letters during interludes in the first part of the play before we know what they are. They are not love letters as in more typical Cyrano scenarios, but rather little snapshot stories, ostensibly about Del’s life, their poetic effect heightened by soft stage lighting. Though the letters are not about love, they convince Veronica to enter into a romantic relationship with Del.
One of the quirky things about the play, though, is that we never see Veronica and Del alone together. Like the letters that tell about Del’s life, we are only told secondhand about Veronica’s and Del’s romance. Instead, we see Travis’s angst over Veronica’s choice, fueled by Chester’s goading of him. At the heart of the matter, it turns out, is how all three characters’ identities as Asian-Americans inform their choices, not only about whom to love but where to live and how to get tofu.
A humorous videogame-style Ninja fight scene between Chester and Travis epitomizes how that identity conflict is played out here– both on a personal level and against all the stereotypes common to the Asian-American experience.
It’s nice to see Tanng, who has recently appeared in ensemble productions at LBPH, take the lead role in a confident and clear way. Pang is hilariously perfect as the hot-headed but confused Chester, and Skinner as the twangy Del is appropriately boyish and roguish. Narasaki holds her own as Veronica, though she doesn’t come off as strongly as the men, her voice at times muffled.
Overall, Cowboy Versus Samurai offers an interesting premise and direct take on the Asian experience in America, complete with its labels, categorizations and assumptions. There is more telling than showing here, but like Travis’s letters, the words are evocative, unpeeling the veneers of both samurai and cowboy to reveal the people underneath.
Cowboy Versus Samurai continues at the Long Beach Playhouse Studio Theatre, 5021 E. Anaheim St., through Aug. 19, with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sunday at 2pm. Tickets are $20-$24. For tickets and information, call the box office at (562) 494-1014, or visit lbplayhouse.org.