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