What makes for a good play?

Well, it is good if it relates to people’s real lives rather than being dated like a museum exhibit. It is even better if it is universal in its appeal, a play that can be appreciated by anyone at any time. But crucially, because a play is a living, artistic creation, it is vital that it is consummated in the flesh onstage — not something to be simply seen on a screen or read in a book.

“Shin Meian,” by the Tokyo theater company Nitosha (which means “two rabbits”), fulfills all the criteria in spades, and is set to be the stuff of legend.

Written in 2002 by Ai Nagai, a founder of Nitosha and also this play’s director, “Shin Meian (New Meian)” is based on the last novel written by the master of modern Japanese literature, Soseki Natsume (1867-1916).

Originally written — a la Dickens — as a serialized story in the Asahi newspaper, “Meian” (whose kanji mean “bright” and “dark”) was just reaching its denouement when Natsume died suddenly from a stomach ulcer. By then — in 188 episodes — this huge work had introduced readers to a young upper-middle-class salaryman named Yoshio Tsuda (Kuranosuke Sasaki) who developed piles and had to have an operation.

This trauma triggered in Tsuda a complete re-evaluation of his formerly humdrum life, including his relationships with those closest to him. First, Tsuda begins to doubt the uniqueness of the love between him and his new wife, Onobu (Ikuko Yamamoto). Then he starts to feel paranoid about even his sister, Hideko (Moeko Koyama), and his boss’s wife, Yoshikawa (Hana Kino), and suspects they are conspiring against him.

Tsuda finally decides to attempt to resolve the biggest mystery in his life: Why his ex-girlfriend Kiyoko (also played by Ikuko Yamamoto) suddenly ditched him. To do so, he goes to a hot-spring resort hotel where she is recuperating after a miscarriage.

Natsume — who was famed for his sense of irony — died just as his tale seemed to be reaching its climax, when Tsuda meets Kiyoko again and is about to ask her the real reason why she dumped him. Here, Nagai has added an ending (that it would be churlish to disclose in full) that cleverly completes this “new” “Meian,” and transports it to life-enriching realms of sheer brilliance.

In doing so, Nagai — who is renowned for her super-realistic stage sets — adopts a quite abstract black-and-white look to echo the play’s title. A two-story black-and-white wall — in which are built several “windows” — surrounding the stage, with the actors mainly playing in the empty middle area.

However, that central area rotates as the scenes change — becoming a hospital room, then a luxury living room, then a ryokan, etc. Interestingly, though, in the middle of the play, each character reveals, through a monologue, their private thoughts from the wall’s second-floor openings. To the ironic accompaniment of exaggerated Western classical music, the production here by Nagai is a gem in terms of the way it reveals individual human drama as it occurs every day to millions all over the world. It is all the better, too, for being carried out with a good sense of humor in its minute observation of ordinary people.

And so we come to the new ending by Nagai. At the climax of this play, she explores Tsuda’s rejection by Kiyoko — or was it not a rejection, but a test? — and his life after he took it as a rejection, deciding “past is past,” and moving unhappily on.

Meian, read another way in kanji, can also mean “to lose” and “to debate,” and this production shows how people all too often lose their way in life and have to debate the best way forward. Truly, this is a new “Meian” for modern audiences.

Besides being absorbing plot-wise, though, this staging is inestimably enhanced by the grace of each actor, most of whom are returning to roles they played in the first production in Tokyo in 2002. Natsume’s serialized novel has often been likened to the work of a “Japanese Dostoevski,” in terms of its deep insight into the human condition. But Dostoevski never wrote for the stage — so that makes this more of an Anton Chekov piece sublimated by Nagai.

The American drama demigod Robert Allan Ackerman is back in Tokyo to direct the debut production at Theatre 1010 (Theatre Senju), a new venue that’s opened in Tokyo’s downtown Kita Senju district.

Following his magnificent “Angels in America” at Theatre Project Tokyo (tpt), which is still topping my 2004 play list, the prospect of him tackling his first-ever staging of Eugene O’Neill’s “Desire Under the Elms” has been eagerly awaited by many theater fans.

Written in 1924 by the four-time Pulitzer prizewinner (O’Neill was also the first American dramatist to win a Nobel Prize for literature in 1936) the deep, daring, tale of desire and human frailty that is “Desire Under the Elms” seemed a good bet to be a challenger for the top spot as Tokyo’s best play this year. But . . .

Set in New England in the 1850s, the play introduces us to three brothers living and working hard on a farm. Then one day, their father, Ephraim Cabot (Shu Nakajima), returns home accompanied by his third wife, a young ambitious woman named Abbie (Shinobu Terajima), after having been away for two months. Unhappy at this development, and dreaming of gold, the two older brothers head west, leaving the new couple in the house with the third son, Eben (Sohee Park), who hates the dictatorial father he blames for his mother’s death.

More spice is heaped into this tasty broth when Abbie falls in love with Eben at first sight. Soon she has seduced him and before long she has a baby whom everyone assumes to be Ephraim’s son. Afraid something might be brewing, Ephraim tells Eben that Abbie can’t stand the sight of him. Tragically, to prove him wrong, Abbie kills her baby to demonstrate her real love for Eben. The two then depart hand in hand to jail, their love confirmed and the old man left to stew in his own juices under the all-seeing elms.

In presenting this powerful drama, Setsu Asakura, a princess of Japanese stage-set design who is the artistic director of Theatre 1010 and a long-term business partner of Ackerman, has brilliantly re-created an 1850s New England farmhouse that occupies the whole of the proscenium-arch stage. And towering above are the symbolic, massive elm trees that seem to tie Eben psychologically to his roots there despite all.

In his last two Tokyo stagings — “Angels in America” and “Bent” at tpt (see The Japan Times Feb. 11, 2004, and Jan. 1, 2003, respectively) — Ackerman succeeded wonderfully with sparse sets — arousing the audience’s imagination and channeling powerful stories intensely and mesmerizingly through actors to whom everyone’s eyes remained glued throughout — even down to their tiniest inflections. Unfortunately, here, the opposite applies. On this gigantic and detailed set, the actors look like nothing so much as marionettes in a doll’s house, and — maybe because of this — they appear uncomfortable, often giving the impression that their first priority is to reach the next room as quickly as possible to be on cue.

Similarly, for the audience, it was an unnecessary distraction to create a living room behind the main stage set and have the whole rotate for scenes taking place there. Compounding the woes here is Park, who debuted sensationally two years ago on the experimental stage set of Ackerman’s “Bent” as the concentration-camp hero Max. This time round he seems fluffy and this removes credibility from a play that relies on the strong intimacy between Eben and Abbie.

I might sound ungrateful or, perhaps, greedy, but as much as I looked forward to this production I now find myself looking forward to a restaging of “Desire Under the Elms” by Ackerman in the future.

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