Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1979
Act 1, Scenes 1–10
The play opens with a crisp image that exemplifies an important theme of the play: orientalism, i.e., the style or manner associated with or characteristics of Asia or Asians. It opens with complete darkness, all except for an ancient, hanging scroll painted with a Japanese woman in a formal pose. Darius Wheeler, an Asian art and antiquities dealer, utters the first words of the play, and his story is one of danger, luck, and intrigue.
With the tone set, Iizuka begins to construct the plot of her story. A party is being held in Wheeler’s loft space. This is the first place our main characters, Wheeler and Setsuko Hearn, meet. Hearn is an assistant professor of East Asian literature. The characters have an outwardly innocent conversation revolving around Wheeler’s collection of art and artifacts. During the discussion, Wheeler cuts his hand on a glass and starts bleeding. Through word choice and subtle action, it is apparent that both characters find each other stimulating and intriguing.
Also at the party is Wheeler’s assistant, John Bell. Although there are festivities occurring outside of the office, Bell is working. The party is being held for a famous artist, Utagawa, who has not yet arrived. Bell is frantically looking for a piece of paper when Claire Tsong, a restorer of Asian artifacts, approaches him. After a short exchange about a transcript on the desk, Bell returns to the party. Elizabeth Newman-Orr, a free agent, then enters the office. Tsong and Newman-Orr have a lofty exchange about what is an authentic artifact and what is a fake.
Outside the office, the party continues. Owen Matthiassen, the chairman of the East Asian Studies Department, approaches Wheeler and Hearn. Matthiassen informs Wheeler of Hearn’s expertise and brilliance in ‘‘writing from the eleventh century, diaries, memoirs, pillow books written by women of the Heian era.’’ The two scholars, Hearn and Matthiassen, and the dealer, Wheeler, have an intellectual exchange about the relationship of art and beauty to ideas and abstractions.
It is clear from this series of conversations, that the crowd at the party is highbrow, well-educated and cosmopolitan. Although not explicitly stated, the party must be located in a city that is a mecca for art, culture and capitalism. Bell interrupts the discussion to inform Mr. Wheeler that the long-awaited guest of honor will, in fact, not be arriving. With that news, the party begins to dissolve. As the guests exit, Bell introduces Newman-Orr to Wheeler. Newman-Orr is extremely interested in Wheeler; her persistence lands her a meeting with him the following night. Although she intrigues him, her intentions are unknown.
Later in the evening, after most of the partygoers have left, Wheeler approaches Matthiassen with the hopes of finding Hearn. To Wheeler’s disappointment, Hearn has already left. Wheeler presents Matthiassen with a Hokusai print of Mount Fuji (the namesake of Iizuka’s play). Matthiassen is insurmountably impressed. To Matthiassen’s dismay, Wheeler reveals that the print, although beautiful, is fake. The party thus ends.
The transition from the party to the next day is precipitated by Tsong reading the fine print disclaimer associated with the sale of an artifact: The vendor is not responsible for its authenticity, defects, and correctness of description. As though alluding to future troubles, Tsong declares, ‘‘Always read the fine print. There is always fine print.’’ After Tsong’s interlude, Hearn follows with a reading from the transcript Bell had on his desk during the party. These lulls in the dialogue are essential for developing tension between the characters and arousing interest in the transcript, which has yet to be explained.
Act 2, Scenes 11–20
The day after the party, Bell and Tsong are in Wheeler’s loft space having a conversation about art and artifacts. Tsong has dropped off an Edo period screen she recently restored for Wheeler. Tsong claims that all the pieces are ‘‘bric-a-brac for the leisure class’’ and that ‘‘it’s all just capital.’’ Bell not only disagrees, he also claims that Tsong does not truly believe what she is saying. To prove her point, Tsong is willing to spray paint the screen she has just restored. As she starts to spray, Bell darts in front of the screen, blocking the paint with his body. After ruining Bell’s shirt, their conversation strays from art to Bell, who is described as an under-appreciated intellectual with low self-esteem.
As the scene ends, Wheeler and Newman-Orr enter the loft space. Bell and Tsong have left. Newman-Orr wants to know if Wheeler is capable of smuggling a recently purchased painting out of Hong Kong into the United States. The reason it must be smuggled is that the painting is considered a national treasure and, if it is discovered leaving the country, it will be seized and returned to the country of origin as an invaluable cultural artifact. The two agree that Wheeler, if successful in smuggling it out, will receive twenty percent of the purchase price, which will be placed in an offshore account, half up-front and half upon the object’s delivery. Newman-Orr leaves the loft.
Wheeler is again at his desk examining the earlier transcript. Hearn’s voice is heard reading the transcript as Wheeler looks at it. Bell enters and Wheeler questions him about the transcript. Bell answers with a sizeable monologue about the translation from what he believes may be an eleventhcentury Heian era memoir or ‘‘pillow book.’’ Bell also gives a lengthy and surprisingly precise account of who has owned the piece through the centuries. Wheeler exits the scene with the transcript.
Later that afternoon, Tsong and Bell are again alone in Wheeler’s loft. Bell is confessing to Tsong that he completely fabricated the story about the eleventh-century pillow book. He is distraught because he is dumbfounded as to why he lied and, even more astonishing, that Wheeler believed every word. Tsong is ecstatic and decides that she must create the artifact out of thin air. She plans to construct Bell’s fictitious ancient pillow book so that no one knows it is a fraud.
In a corridor of the university, Wheeler presents Hearn with a copy of Bell’s transcript. Hearn is mystified by the quality of the voice, even through the translation. She is enthralled and is desperate to examine the original. Also, in this exchange, Hearn accepts Wheeler’s invitation to dinner.
The scene switches to Newman-Orr. She is removing a hidden recording device that was taped to her body. She rewinds the device, and her exchange with Wheeler, about the transportation of the artifact, is played back through her recorder.
Act 2, Scenes 21–36
The second act opens with Tsong working with archaic paper—burning edges, fabricating wear and age—to create a piece of ‘‘ancient’’ art.
It is apparent that the dean and other professors at the university are very interested in the forthcoming artifact. Matthiassen and Hearn are both eager to get their hands on the original pillow book. In a conversation that takes place in a park, Wheeler and Hearn discuss the pillow book while looking at Tsong’s Polaroid photographs. They are discussing the beauty of the book and the inner feelings that are expressed through the author’s writings. As the conversation turns to the subject of desire and love, Hearn and Wheeler kiss. Hearn is apprehensive about continuing, but Wheeler is smitten.
In Tsong’s workspace, Bell is examining her creation. He is astonished. Her work is flawless. She tells Bell that if he creates an airtight paper trail, their creation will be finished and ‘‘authentic.’’ Bell and Tsong’s argument delves into the crux of Iizuka’s question about authenticity. Tsong tells Bell to present the ‘‘original’’ to Wheeler and also to give him an asking price. She reminds him that the price must be exorbitant because a pillow book of this quality and age is extremely rare. They both leave Tsong’s workspace.
Hearn and Wheeler are presented getting dressed together, discussing what they know about the author of the pillow book. Wheeler is tremendously drawn to Hearn and begs her to accept his invitation to drinks and a nightcap later. She is still apprehensive, but Wheeler’s determination persuades her.
Later in the day, at Wheeler’s loft space, Newman-Orr and Wheeler are discussing the successful, but illegal, transportation of her artifact. Bell pries open the crate containing Newman-Orr’s artifact. The painting is revealed, and it is clear that it is an exact match to a painting hanging in Wheeler’s loft. Newman-Orr is confused as to why there are twins. By some sort of instinct, Wheeler discovered that Newman-Orr was trying to frame him, to catch him in the throws of the illegal activity of transporting a national treasure out of the country of origin. Wheeler explains that he knew her piece was a fake and that any real dealer would know the same thing. Thus, he suspected she was working for someone else in an attempt to frame him. Wheeler asks her to leave his loft, and she complies. After she leaves, Bell tells Wheeler that the owner of the pillow book is asking one million pounds sterling for the piece. Wheeler thinks the asking price is low. He tells Bell that he will have a check ready for the purchase by the end of the business day.
An hour later, Tsong is in Wheeler’s loft space with her creation, the ‘‘original’’ pillow book manuscript. Newman-Orr arrives looking for Bell. Since he is unavailable, Tsong invites Newman-Orr out for a drink. Newman-Orr tells Tsong that she is a journalist. The two leave Wheeler’s loft together.
In Matthiassen’s office, Hearn and Matthiassen are discussing the fake pillow book. Matthiassen tells Hearn that it would have never occurred to him, except that he had received a call from the journalist who had interviewed the forger and seen the forgery. Matthiassen explains that after a close inspection, the anomalies of the writing, although originally overlooked, were quite dramatic. It became apparent that the piece was not an original eleventhcentury Heian era pillow book.
In the early evening of the same day, Hearn and Wheeler are in his loft discussing their past, their first loves, and their families. Hearn informs Wheeler that she has resigned from her position at the university. She believes that Wheeler was using her to authenticate the fake pillow book so it could be resold for a fortune. Wheeler, however, claims he was not taking advantage of her and their relationship. He purports that his feelings for her were genuine, that they were authentic. Crushed by sadness, Hearn leaves Wheeler’s loft.
In a gallery, Tsong and Newman-Orr are having a drink amidst the thirty-six Utagawa paintings hanging on the walls. They discuss how Wheeler got started in the art dealing business. It is revealed, through a kiss, that Tsong and Newman-Orr have become lovers. In the same gallery, Bell and Matthiassen discuss Bell’s recent book. His book is written from the point of view of an eleventhcentury, Heian-era Japanese woman—a point of view that matches that of the fabricated author of Tsong’s forged pillow book.
In the final scene, Wheeler and Hearn stand apart from each other on a stage that contains only the thirty-six paintings. Through their words, it is revealed that although the fabricated pillow book was indeed a fake, it was created by a contemporary and very popular artist: Utagawa. It is exposed that Utagawa is, in fact, Claire Tsong, Wheeler’s favorite art restorer and, apparently, a reclusive painter. Lastly and tragically, it is also divulged that Wheeler and Hearn never resolved their misunderstanding and never rekindled their love or their friendship. The thirty-six paintings shift their alignment, creating one large mosaic of a woman, part contemporary and part ancient. The play ends.