In the barbed comedy “Exclusion,” playwright Kenneth Lin at times judiciously complicates this timeworn vision of a philistine Tinseltown. But as seen in the sleek, beautifully acted and often funny Arena Stage world premiere production, directed by Trip Cullman, the tweaks aren’t always enough to make the play’s Hollywood-needling feel fresh. Still, by upending the paradigm here and there, Lin engages our minds and sympathies more fully with the play’s other major theme: the urgency of telling stories that mainstream America has marginalized, and the power struggle that can result by doing that.
“Exclusion” centers on a historian who has tackled one such story: the history of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. When her award-winning book on the subject is optioned for a TV miniseries, Katie (played by Karoline, who goes by one name) is initially thrilled to join the writers’ room. But when a Hollywood bigwig named Harry (Josh Stamberg) and his associates strip the series of historical accuracy and fill it with racist stereotypes, Katie reassesses her Faustian bargain.
From the play’s opening moments, when Katie is nervously waiting for Harry to show up for an appointment, Karoline skillfully calibrates the historian character’s awkwardness, hesitation, outrage and resolve, providing a portrait that supports the play’s occasional surprises. Stamberg is very funny as the oily, bloviating Harry, who holds a dim view of the watching public. “Katie, if Gomer John Q. Flyover knows the phrase ‘Chinese Exclusion Act,’ I mean, measure us up for my Humanitas Prize,” he says.
The terrific Tony Nam finds just the right mannerisms for Katie’s restless husband, would-be director Malcolm. The relatively naturalistic give-and-take between the spouses — intimacy, gentle bickering, affectionate jokes — is a nice complement to the cynical satire of Hollywood. (Designer Arnulfo Maldonado furthers that satire with sets that include Harry’s soullessly tidy office, dominated by an enormous movie poster for “Basic Instinct.”)
Also warmly convincing are Katie’s interactions with Viola (an appealing Michelle Vergara Moore), a Paris Review-reading actress of Chinese heritage whose perspective on the miniseries differs from Katie’s. In one particularly stirring sequence, Katie briefly addresses Viola in Cantonese, which Viola speaks a little of. For those of us in the audience who don’t speak Cantonese, the exchange evokes a valuable feeling of (nod to the title) exclusion. And yet, the gist of the Cantonese conversation — the women’s sudden, deep moment of shared sympathy — is poignantly clear.
Katie, Viola and Malcolm wrestle with how Hollywood misrepresents, suppresses and distorts Asian American history. Their grappling with the subject — amply justifying the play’s place in Arena Stage’s Power Plays series, focused on American history, politics and power — feels especially timely: We’re still reeling not only from a pandemic-era uptick in anti-Asian hate, but also from ongoing partisan efforts to restrict school teaching about race and racism.
Lin, who, in addition to being a playwright (“Kleptocracy”), is a screenwriter and producer (credits include Netflix’s “House of Cards”), is resourceful in weaving the historical themes into a spoof of Hollywood. That spoof doesn’t always feel novel, but when it does, we’re glad to be included.
Exclusion, by Kenneth Lin. Directed by Trip Cullman. Costume design, Sarah Cubbage; lighting, Adam Honoré; sound, Sun Hee Kil; original music, Hsin-Lei Chen; fight direction, Sordelet Inc. About 90 minutes. $56-$95. Through June 25 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. arenastage.org.