My Home on the Moon
San Francisco Playhouse
Outside, the crushing sounds of a next-door bakery’s demise reverberate, facing the same deadly fate as the deli and tea shop that were part of the once-vibrant neighborhood. Inside Pho Lan Restaurant, owner Lan prays before the altar to her ancestors while her young chef, Mai, holds up a stack of unpaid bills, tries to warm pho on a stove that does not work, and worries that there are no customers – today or any day lately. Amidst the gloom and doom, a huge gift basket full of goodies like gigantic biscotti, Cheetos, and dried squid arrives with an attached note informing the two amazed women that their tiny restaurant has been awarded a Novus Corporation Small Business Grant. Why the telephone company has selected them and how telephones are related to cooking pho are mysteries that fall to the wayside of concern soon after the arrival of warmly smiling, smartly attired Vera, a consultant who promises that she and Novus will transform Pho Lan Restaurant into “something new, something different, something that will change the world.”
San Francisco Playhouse stages an other-worldly world premiere of Minna Lee’s My Home on the Moon– a hilarious comedy with ever-mounting elements of TikTok videos, Twilight Zone, and some glimpses of where today’s news headlines about A-I could lead us in the near future. Thanks to Vera and Novus, a rather dingy restaurant soon reverberates with an invitingly-mod glow of orange; with once-plain walls that now open into jungled gardens (like Lan’s memories of her cherished Vietnam); and with tables packed as customers happily eat dishes like “The Pho-Fantastic.” And best of all, Lan and Mai pay no rent, no taxes, no bills whatsoever. Sounds too good to be true? Who cares? Lean back and laugh along with Lan and Mei who are soon hanging up their first (but not last) Michelin star.
Sharon Omi is a delight to behold as she portrays the aging Lan who years ago opened this Pho restaurant with her dear, now-deceased sister, whose picture adorns the corner altar. Lan’s spirited optimism radiates in her twinkling eyes, in sudden spirts around the café of light-foot dancing or even singing, and in her unbounded trust in both her ancestors and in newly arrived Vera. Lan even enjoys interacting with a long, luminous rice noodle that emerges from the ceiling and likes to caress her cheek. What does she care how or why it is there. It’s just part of the new Pho Lan environment.
Lan also loves the way her memories of her homeland are coming to full life so that she can truly serve her customers not only food, but – with Vera’s help –Vietnam itself. Even her recall of a bombed-out, leveled city full of giant craters that her sister once told her was like the surface of the moon is now a memory that causes her to gaze longingly at the moon– a place she longs to visit in order to feel close again to her homeland and her sister. Can Vera help her with that dream, too?
Less enthralled of Vera and quite skeptical of all the sudden changes is Mai, a twenty-something drop-out of chef school who left because just following traditional recipes was not enough for her creative itches. Mai has little patience for many of Vera’s ideas like menu items turned into puns or sexy videos of skin-bearing chefs produced to create market buzz. But her proneness to frown or to stomp out of the restaurant after another weird Vera idea slowly shifts as Jenny Nguyen Nelson’s Mai begins to soften up around Vera, even willing to show her how to crack her first egg and make an omelet. Like an onion losing its outer, tough skins, her Mai surprises even herself as new, strange feelings start boiling up inside her toward this rather beautiful corporate intruder.
The genuine desire of Vera to make both Lan and Mai happy in a much-improved and now exceedingly successful restaurant exudes to the hilt in her never-changing smile, cooing sincerity, and flowing suggestions that become reality in a flash. Her knowledge appears unlimited as she instantly spouts a dictionary-like definition upon first hearing mentioned Vietnamese dishes like ‘báhn xèo’ or ‘gòi cuôn’ or even hearing something as common as ‘moon’ (“a prominent and easily visible object in the night sky”). Her eagerness not only to help but to learn new things visibly excites her – not only how to crack that first egg but her expressed desire to try new things like “plant a garden,” “meet a horse,” and “dance.” For someone who says she has never danced, she shows up at the restaurant’s Tet celebration to show off a twisting, turning, floor-dipping sequence of every dance style imaginable from ballet to break. Rinabeth Apostol phenomenally portrays a Vera who wins over not only Lan and Mai but us in an audience – even if we cannot quite understand who in the world (or not-world) she really is.
Joining these three incredible actors are two others who play multiple roles. Every time Will Dao steps onto the stage, he sends us as an audience into a tizzy of laughter – whether as an erotically pumping and humping dancing chef or as a bombastic, bubbly food critic who tackles his bites like in the midst of a karate demonstration. When he shows up at the restaurant in the role as a former employee, Beau, with an anxious message of warning for Mai, Will Dao brings the house down as his Beau suddenly erupts mid-sentence into a spinning, sputtering, stammering storm for no apparent reason.
Will Dao’s Chef 2 is joined in his sexy, scantily clothed dancing on the restaurant’s counter by Ann Warque as Chef 1 (standing in on opening night for Erin Mei-Ling Stuart). The two are also rambunctious lion dancers during full-of-fireworks Tet festivities.
Rounding out the cast of six is Eric Mei-Ling Stuart as aa all-in-black-dressed, all-business, no-play Novus exec, Gigi, who comes to the restaurant to check out some strange turns in events and to make some adjustments in Vera’s performance as the corporation’s resident consultant.
Mei Ann Teo deserves huge kudos for directorial decisions by the dozens that keep this sci-fi comedy cracking with surprises and laughs galore. There is never a moment of pause in the ninety minutes with no intermission; and we sometimes hardly have a chance to catch our breath before the next noodle comes dancing from behind the counter. At the same time, the director takes Minna Lee’s fabulously imaginative script and ensures that a lot of heart and even some romance finds room to shine forth amidst the hilarity and the strange mystery of our wondering what is exactly going on.
Each member of the Creative Team is also a star to be roundly applauded. A rather plain but realistic restaurant with its working kitchen and shelves full of food transforms into an eatery wonderland through the imagination of Scenic Designer Tanya Orellana and Properties Designer Vincent Chau. As a huge turntable seamlessly spins, other scenes both of this world and not appear to spur on new aspects of an ever-surprising storyline.
Howard Ho’s musical compositions and sound design turn restaurant celebrations into nightclub-like happenings while the lighting of Michael Oesch and the projections designed by Hao Bai transform the San Francisco Playhouse setting into online videos, NFTs (non-fungible tokens), and Vegas-like settings as well as a gyrating, pulsing world where the theatre’s walls appear to move and collapse as we are inside a world of computer code-generation.
In case it is not already evident, there is only one recommendation when it comes to SF Playhouse’s world premiere staging of Minna Lee’s My Home on the Moon: Grab a ticket NOW because sell-outs for this must-see night of fun and fantasy are all but guaranteed.
Rating: 5 E, MUST-SEE
A Theatre Eddys Best Bet Production
My Home on the Moon continues through February 24, 2024, in world premiere production by San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street, San Francisco. Tickets are available at www.sfplayhouse.org or by calling the box office at 415-677-9596.
Note: This production with adult language and sexual content is recommended for the ages of 13+.
Photo Credits: Jessica Palopoli