“Extraordinary Chambers”: Powerfully Acted Still Underwhelming

Erika Beth Phillips and Manny Fernandes.  Photos by Crissy Pascua

Erika Beth Phillips, Esther K. Chae, and Greg Watanabe.
Photos by Crissy Pascual

Sometimes, a play immediately sounds like it will be a success based on an intriguing concept. This is true with Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company’s production of “Extraordinary Chambers.” Sadly, a unique premise does not always result in a masterpiece.

Set in modern day Cambodia, the drama follows Carter (Manny Fernandes) and Mara (Erika Beth Phillips), an American couple who are clearly facing issues in their marriage. Carter is working on having a foreign contract executed with telecommunication centers for his U.S based company. His quest results in the two of them crossing paths with Dr. Heng (Greg Watanabe) and his wife, Rom Chang (Esther K. Chae). Events become more complicated after a newspaper article reveals a dangerous secret about the doctor that will change all of their lives forever.

The best aspect about this production is the cast of five. The character of Carter is ridiculously naïve and at times neglectful to his wife, but Fernandes is able to give a humane performance. A scene where he breaks down in front of his spouse is haunting, because he authentically depicts a husband reflecting on past tragedy that might hit close to home for a lot of audience members.

Since “Extraordinary Chambers” opens with Mara being verbally insulting toward Carter, it is hard to sympathize with her in the beginning. Fortunately, it does not take too long to find out the root of her anger, and Phillips really shines when being emotionally vulnerable.

Watanabe actually was featured in the original staging of “Extraordinary Chambers” at the Geffen Playhouse. However, in Los Angeles, he was cast in the role of the kindhearted servant, Sopoan, who is played, in San Diego, by the heartbreaking Albert Park. Watanabe is intelligent and consistently disturbing from the second he first appears as a man who has a complex view on the nature of morality.

Though Rom has a confusing story arc, there is no denying how darkly funny Chae is when subtly taking shots at the tourists coming to visit Dr. Heng’s home. She provides some of the more genuine laughs that happen during this bleak play.

Greg Watanabe.

Greg Watanabe.

Seema Sueko’s direction feels cinematic, especially during some of the wonderfully handled scene transitions. Her masterful touch builds up tension, as conflicts seem bound to happen after startling revelations are revealed.

Even with the committed cast and strong direction, there is still something underwhelming about David Wiener’s writing. Parts of the dialogue are obvious and lack edginess, but flashes of brilliance then counteract these lines. 

There is too much unnecessary speechifying towards the conclusion when the action should be building up to an explosive climax. Thus, the ending goes on for far too long.

If there are future versions of “Extraordinary Chambers,” a potential improvement would be to cut out some of the extended conversations, especially in Act II. Editing it by about 10 minutes would yield a significantly more intense piece of theatre.

“Extraordinary Chambers” should be more gut wrenching, but it is certainly ambitious and will likely open up many people’s eyes about a horrific period of time for Cambodia. The fact that Wiener does not sugarcoat history is something to appreciate.

[box] Extraordinary Chambers plays at The 10th Avenue Theatre Sundays at 2, Wednesdays at 8, Thursdays at 8, Fridays at 8, and Saturdays at 8. Tickets ($22-$30) are available at the Mo’olelo website or by calling 619-342-7395.

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Photo of Mo’olelo Performing Arts
Mo’olelo Performing Arts
Work The 10th Avenue Theatre 930 10th Avenue San Diego CA 92101 USA Work Phone: 619-342-7395 Website: Mo\’olelo Performing Arts website
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David Dixon

A fan of theatre from a young age, David Dixon began writing reviews while in middle school, for Union Tribune’s Rated G column and sdcnn.com. He was the Entertainment Editor for SDSU’s The Daily Aztec. Currently, he contributes to San Diego Community News Network, a regional reviewer for Talkin’ Broadway, an interviewer for San Diego Theatre Reviews and has won several San Diego Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards. David is a San Diego Theatre Critics Circle member, an American Theatre Critics Association member & Regional Theatre Tony Award voter.

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