Big acting, small fish

'tokyo fish story' serves sushi at the Stern

"tokyo fish story," Kimber Lee's new play (mounted at the Lucie Stern Theatre by TheatreWorks) brings us sushi on stage -- and a small slice of urban life in modern Tokyo. It's a familiar tale of clashing generations, the need for changing with the times, and ambition, which doesn't say much that's new on those subjects but does unfold with a sweet, engaging mystery. Superb acting and production values provide depth that makes up for what the play lacks, and if you love Francis Jue's acting, you'll want to see him light up the stage again.

Takashi (James Seol), nearing 40, works as assistant sushi chef to master chef Koji (Francis Jue), in the tiny restaurant that Koji made famous years ago with his reputation for superb sushi. But Koji's restaurant is declining in popularity, competing with fast-food joints and the new chain Boku Wa Sushi ("I Am Sushi") across the street catering to newer palates and playing American pop music. Takashi would love to introduce new menu items and techniques he has learned to try and revive the restaurant, but Koji refuses to consider it.

Underling chef Nobu (Linden Tailor) praises Takashi's talent and wants him to succeed, if only so he can keep his tenuous position. Hip-hop and Star Wars-loving Nobu also has to deal with the disastrous raw recruit Yuji, hired as the least offensive of a string of applicants (all played by Arthur Keng). Exception: A young woman, Ama (Nicole Javier), wants the job but is told by Takashi that women don't belong at the sushi bar.

We see Koji dealing with the local fish monger (also Arthur Keng), suggesting that even the fish aren't like they used to be, and lamenting the apparent takeover of the world by the very young. There are also increasing hints that Koji's mind is slipping ever more into dreams of the past. He "sees" a woman repeatedly and begins acting erratically, ultimately requiring rescue by none other than Ama. And could it be that Takashi is more than just his assistant?

The resolution of all these various plot threads is fairly predictable and not writ large, but in the skillful work of excellent actors, it's enjoyable to watch. To call something a "fish story" is to label it sheer fabrication, an exaggeration beyond belief. In the case of Lee's play, it may refer more to the illusions we carry in our heads, the fish stories we tell ourselves that prevent us from seeing the truth. Koji must abandon his illusion of a still-prosperous restaurant in order to see what he needs to do for Takashi and the future; and in a sense each character has to let go of illusions in order to move forward.

Jue, a local favorite who has gone on from his early days with TheatreWorks to star on film, TV, and national stages, brings touching depth to Koji in an utterly believable performance. He's partnered well with Seol as Takashi, who rises above the stereotype of obedient son and yet embodies a reverence for excellence that is palpable.

Tailor provides fun and welcome comic relief as Nobu. His character has to contain understanding of both the contemporary world and the past, and Tailor shows this with ease. Keng must wear a dozen different costumes and manages to become vastly different characters in each one. It's delightful to see him morph so quickly and with aplomb.

Javier manages to give Ama more dimensionality than is on the page, making her more of an equal in Takashi's realm. Her dreamy appearances as The Woman are haunting and timeless.

The inventive set by Wilson Chin includes floating elements that contrast nicely with the solidity of the sushi bar, but even that floats in and out. Authentic costumes by Alina Bokovikova and gorgeous lighting by Dawn Chiang are complemented by Jeff Mockus' sound design that marries old with new. Kirsten Brandt's direction keeps the action as lively as possible, given the relatively static nature of some of the scenes.

It's not such a big fish story but it's brought to life with great veracity and an obvious love for the material -- and, did I mention Francis Jue?

What: "tokyo fish story," by Kimber Lee, presented by TheatreWorks

Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto

When: Through April 3, with 7 p.m. shows Wednesday; 8 p.m. shows Thursday-Saturday; 2 p.m. matinees on Saturdays and Sundays; and 7 p.m. shows Sundays

Cost: $19 to $74

Info: Go to theatreworks.org or call 650-463-1960.

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