`Shimada' Hits on a Red-Hot Political Issue Broadway Play Tackles the Economic and Social Antagonism between Japan and the West

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IT'S almost as if the script for "Shimada," a dramatic mystery opening tonight on Broadway, were taken straight from the morning headlines. The East-West economic and cultural issues under the spotlight are that contemporary.

The story, actually written six years ago by Australian playwright Jill Shearer, centers on Japan's expanding economic role. A gift-bearing Japanese businessman arrives in a small Australian town to help rescue a struggling bicycle business. The sales manager, played by veteran Hollywood actor Ben Gazzara, is convinced that the present-day rescuer is actually Shimada, the cruel Japanese guard who almost killed him in a Burmese prisoner-of-war camp during World War II. The manager's memories recur as a vivid series of flashbacks.

The play, performed by a star-studded cast of Oscar and Tony Award winners that includes Ellen Burstyn, Mako, and Estelle Parsons, makes no mention of recent Japanese criticism of the American work ethic, exhortations to "buy American," or Nintendo's proposed purchase of the Seattle Mariners.

Yet those watching the play in the context of such news and the tensions it evokes will find some striking parallels.

"Shimada" is part of an unusually prolific Broadway season of 38 new plays. That number is one-third higher than last season's total. In a milieu that has for some time been more inclined toward plays about personal problems from relationships to health, this drama takes on a red-hot political issue in the context of a personal story.

Ms. Shearer's play is the only one ever on the Great White Way to offer simultaneous translation into a foreign language - Japanese - via headsets. A four-page Japanese insert in the program had American preview audiences asking: "Do they read from right to left?"

The play's producers note that 120,000 Japanese live and work in the New York area. More than 400,000 more visit each year as tourists. Many of those in the past, says Shimada co-producer Richard Seader, went to musicals or plays with familiar plots to skirt the language barrier.

The characters in the two roles played by Mako, the Japanese-born actor who came to the United States at the age of 15 to study architecture, are not particularly flattering to Japan. Yet director Simon Phillips, who first directed the play in 1987 at its premiere in Melborne, says most Japanese consider the play "balanced."

Those concerned that the portrayals may offend the Japanese, he says, are Westerners who tend to view the issue subjectively.

"I think the play lays everyone's preconceptions and prejudices and paranoias right out on the table," says Mr. Phillips. "People come, and hopefully leave, having had their own points of view expressed and brought into contention with others that maybe they hadn't thought of."

Yet Phillips and others closely involved with the play see the overall message as positive - a call for the East and West to move forward together and cooperate economically.

The producers deliberately sought out Japanese investment for the play. The idea was to get sort of a "Good Housekeeping seal of approval," says co-producer Paul Berkowsky, to "dispel any lingering notions that this might be an anti-Japanese play which it is not....

"There are as many things the Japanese did that they're ashamed of as we did that we're ashamed of. The play is quite open about that - it talks about Hiroshima, for instance."

Osaka businessman Nobunao Furuyama liked the play and its message. Grateful in particular for American aid to Japan after the war and the prep-school education his youngest son now receives in Maryland, he contributed $480,000, almost one-third of the play's capitalization cost.

Despite the timeliness of the play's issues, playwright Shearer says the story came together for her over a period of several years. …