CAMBRIDGE — How should we live? It’s the age-old dilemma, sometimes closely connected to another quandary: Where should we live?
Questions of what constitutes a fulfilling life — and what possible answers might be found to those questions in culture, tradition, career, geography, and family history — undergird Celine Song’s conceptually audacious but unwieldy “Endlings,’’ now receiving a world premiere at the American Repertory Theater.
Song juggles a lot of ideas in “Endlings,’’ bringing no small amount of wit and insight to the enterprise. This writer has a large talent, wedded to a poetic sensibility and an admirable fearlessness. So does director Sammi Cannold, who doesn’t shrink from the structural challenges Song’s work presents, including scenes in which actors swim in a large tank of water.
But there’s a line between self-referentiality and self-indulgence, and Song trips on that tricky line. The frequency of fourth-wall-breaking meta devices in “Endlings,’’ when coupled with a tonal inconsistency that feels more arbitrary than strategic, diminish the impact of the play.
“Endlings’’ opens on a stony Korean island where three elderly women, called haenyeo, are carrying on an ancient but imperiled tradition: Each day, they don rust-colored wetsuits and dive dozens of times per hour into often-turbulent waters, harvesting seafood. Eventually, “Endlings’’ switches to a very different (but also stony) island, Manhattan. There, Ha Young, a Korean-Canadian playwright in her late 20s, is working on the very play we are watching while wrestling with the implications for her own identity of telling the story of the haenyeo. She is portrayed by Jiehae Park with a nice balance of ardor and ambivalence. (Park is herself a dramatist of note whose work includes the fascinating “peerless.’’)
Eventually, “Endlings’’ brings together the worlds of the struggling haenyeo and the striving playwright. According to her program note, Song has some experience navigating disparate worlds: She moved from Seoul to Toronto when she was 12, then to New York when she was 23. “Endlings’’ is informed by her grasp of the fact that the experience of immigration takes many forms — including, in her formulation, the act of theatergoing itself.
In a big-picture sense, “Endlings’’ makes us think about the cost of staying versus the cost of going; about the perils of being trapped by custom and of being unmoored from custom; about what a struggle it can be to figure out your authentic identity, especially when there is constant pressure to sacrifice that identity to secure mainstream success. “I’ve been writing white plays for years,’’ Ha Young tells us. In one deftly satirical and utterly on-target scene, “Endlings’’ sends up white assumptions about what constitutes worthwhile drama.
But “Endlings’’ is also too self-conscious for its own good. “Aren’t you excited to tell your friends? How you saw a weird play about weird old diving women from Korea?’’ Park’s Ha Young asks the audience in Cambridge’s Loeb Drama Center. “Isn’t everybody doing an amazing job? Aren’t the actors killing it? Isn’t the set breathtaking?’’ A little of this goes a long way, and “Endlings’’ has more than a little of it. (For the record, the set is indeed impressive. Kudos to scenic designer Jason Sherwood, who devised the tank in collaboration with the ART’s production department).
As for those “weird old diving women,’’ they are partly played for laughs in “Endlings,’’ which makes it harder to be deeply touched by their Sisyphean plight, despite capable performances by the three actresses who play them. In particular, there’s a contrived, “Golden Girls’’ quality to the recurrent old-ladies-drop-F-bombs business in the play. Their own attitudes toward their unusual livelihoods — which they describe as “a lifetime of mummification’’ from salt water, wind, and sun — range from resignation to rage.
Most full of the latter emotion is Go Min (Emily Kuroda), a cranky octogenarian who speaks bitterly of her dead husband, her boredom, her desire for “a little drama in my life,’’ and the importance of ensuring that the young do not follow in the haenyos’ footsteps. Han Sol, who is in her 90s and is played by Wai Ching Ho, seeks an escape in TV. Her constant refrain is: “Television rules. Hollywood forever.’’ Perhaps the bleakest outlook is given voice by the youngest of the divers, Sook Ja, who is in her 70s and is played by Jo Yang. “Who will inherit my life?’’ Sook Ja asks bleakly. “No one, if I can help it. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. . . . We eat dirt every day.’’
Such moments suggest that a deeper look at those lives would yield a deeper play. Song found a fascinating story to tell. She should have trusted in that story more.
Play by Celine Song
Directed by Sammi Cannold
Presented by American Repertory Theater. At Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge. Through March 17. Tickets start at $25. 617-547-8300, www.americanrepertorytheater.org