Travis (Mike Tan), a Korean-American English teacher, arrives in Breakneck, Wyoming carrying a few burdens.
One, his heart has been broken, by a woman named Grace whose family didn’t want her to marry — a schoolteacher.
Two, he’s attracted to Asian women and there’s none in Breakneck, although that’s about to change.
And three, he has the same name as the looney protagonist of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, which was the penultimate 1970s movie exploring urban alienation — and who, really, needs to spend their days reminding people of that?
Despite it all, Travis is the core of Cowboy Versus Samurai’s, American playwright Michael Golamco’s comic journey into the heart of American mythology, namely the West.
That’s Sam Shepard country, theatrically speaking, only in Samurai Versus Cowboy, the American West is experienced through the eyes of a trio of Asian-American characters, Travis, Chester (Richard Lee Hsi) and Veronica (Carmela Sison) and the way in which all of their lives become intertwined with Del (Mat Glessing), a white guy who looks as if he walked straight out of an audition for Fool for Love, or any of the rest of Shepard’s comic dramas about America’s new west.
It turns out that Chester was raised in Breakneck by parents who adopted him from Asia, but forgot to ask which country he came from.
Veronica hails from Queens, New York, the home of a large Korean-American population — news that Chester receives with high hopes, as he is the president of the town’s Breakneck Asian Association (or BAA), which currently has two members.
The problems start when Veronica arrives in town, befriends Travis, makes the acquaintance of Chester — and falls for Del.
Not only does Veronica prefer dating white guys to Asians, but there’s a twist in there produced by Travis that doubles up on the racial self-loathing.
Golamco’s script is funny, sharply-written, and tackles the topic of race head-on, with both barrels blazing.
Each of Breakneck’s trio of Asians has a different way of assimilitating race into their lives. Travis is solitary, and conciliatory. Chester is angry, separatist, revolutionary — and a kook. Veronica is pragmatic, cynical, likes to think of herself as assimilated but never quite comes out of a situation without seeming just as lost about race as the other two.
On top of all of that, Del, who teaches phys-ed part time and has never been out of Breakneck, might be a bit of a dope, but he’s a handsome, self-aware dope.
Not only does Del find himself in love with Veronica, but he makes friends with Travis along the way, and spends a considerable amount of his limited IQ points trying to think up someone for Travis to fall in love with too, because his EQ (emotional intelligence) is top of the charts.
Tan anchors the production with a well-grounded, selfless portrayal of Travis, who’s really the calm around which a trio of high wire acts operate. It’s a bit of a thankless task to play a character who constantly does and says the right thing, and Tan delivers a pitch perfect Travis.