Review of ‘The Nosebleed’ – an autobiographical play explores a failed family relationship

Adult children coming to terms with failed relationships with their parents have always been fertile dramatic territory. As it covers this timeworn ground, The nose bleeda compact and particular work written and directed by Aya Ogawa, deserves credit for its singular narrative approach.

It’s not exactly the same as saying that this autobiographical play at the Lincoln Center Theater succeeds and completely satisfies. Beyond some overly pronounced performances, the main character of the author’s father is a bit too vague and generic for his good – and that of the play.

Distinctive high-definition detail is key in a work in which Ogawa bluntly declares that they hated their father – so much that they didn’t lift a finger to honor him when he died there ago. 15 years old. No memorial. No viewing. Nothing. An undertaker in the room is stunned not to honor his father.

Coming to terms with this monumental failure is what this show is all about, and at times it feels like a public confession and therapy session. Unfolding in a series of vignettes over 70 minutes, the piece resembles a jigsaw whose pieces do not fit together perfectly.

Ogawa, who plays their father and youngest son, has no shortage of theatrical tricks. Breaking the fourth wall? Permanently. Interact with the public? Again and again. We are asked with a show of hands: “Who here loves his father? “Who here hates their father?” We are given a sheet of paper and a pencil and instructions. Volunteers are recruited to go on stage.

Ogawa is played by four actors – Ashil Lee, Kaili Y. Turner, Saori Tsukada and Drae Campbell – who also take on other roles. Each reveals a personal failure at the top of the show. Two of these faux pas involve pets and are inconsequential enough to be redundant.

The production is sober and simple – a bare stage and some furniture, street clothes and efficient lighting – while the narrative is omnipresent. The script takes on reality TV, including a re-enacted scene from the bachelorette. A potential suitor admits not having spoken with his father for two years and asks, “Is it my responsibility to reach out?” The moment echoes Ogawa’s thorny family dynamics, sure, but it seems like a silly and arbitrary way to make a point.

We learn that the traumatic titular bloody nose is suffered by Ogawa’s 5-year-old son during a trip to Japan, where they were born and educated before moving to California with their parents. Chris Manley plays a White Guy (as he is listed in the cast of characters), a walking and talking cultural divide who challenges Ogawa’s accent. His presence is a bit of a puzzle, but shows Ogawa’s role as a parent.

Ogawa remembers having only two conversations with their father, an executive who was better at business and paying bills than communication and love. This characterization sounds very familiar. One conversation was about tuition; the other was about the breakdown of his marriage.

After their father died, Ogawa marveled and recoiled at what he left behind. There was his odd collection of members-only jackets, boomboxes and chairs, an obituary he wrote for himself, a drawing of the late Princess Diana and, in a disturbing twist, a legal document linking him to the sexual harassment. Can we ever really know a person?

Towards the end of the play, viewers are encouraged to write down questions they would like to ask their father. Ogawa artfully incorporates them into a ceremonial better late than never send off that is by turns mysterious, touching, and truly out there. It connects the Japanese Buddhist tradition, the people’s princess and the pop classic “My Way”. The song is suitable for describing Ogawa’s dramatic atonement.

The nose bleed is at the Claire Tow Theater until August 28. The nose bleed tickets on New York Theater Guide.

Photo credit: Saori Tsukada, Ashil Lee, Drae Campbell and Kaili Y. Turner in The Nosebleed. (Photo by Julieta Cervantes)