Chicago Theater Review: KING OF THE YEES (Goodman)

by Lawrence Bommer on April 12, 2017

in Theater-Chicago

Post image for Chicago Theater Review: KING OF THE YEES (Goodman)


As the cops say, “Nothing to see here, folks. Move right along.” Or, as Gertrude Stein said of Oakland, there is no “there there.” Both cautions apply to Goodman Theatre’s wrongly commissioned world premiere King of the Yees. This is purportedly playwright Lauren Yee’s quest for identity as a Chinese-American exploring San Francisco’s Chinatown. But her alternately boring or boisterous 140-minute two-act delivers unrevealing revelations so generic they must be camouflaged by Joshua Kahan Brody’s frenetic and incoherent staging. A poor man’s Flower Drum Song, Yee’s efforts to bridge both generational and cultural gaps take two hours to go nowhere.

Irritatingly playful, phonily presentational, and very personally indulgent, King of the Yees contrasts two generations at cross-purposes: the playwright—whose surrogate character turned her back on her heritage, intends to move to Berlin, and doesn’t want kids—with her imbecilically cheerful dad Larry (the title role), a banal booster.

No longer dutifully diligent, the 30-year-old daughter declares that her play is about “how things fall apart and how to say goodbye.” (She will take back this admission by the empty end.)  She doesn’t understand the ethnic pride of her 60-year-old father (the irritatingly bumptious Francis Jue) at being head of the Yee Fung Toy family association, “an obsolescent men’s club dedicated to the preservation of the Yee line.” She also rejects her patriarch’s ancestor worship, minority activism, male smugness, and obsession with putting family over all.

Larry’s suddenly scandalous connection with a corrupt politician, who he smarmily thinks will advance the Yee interests, further alienates the daughter. It also triggers Larry’s seemingly fateful disappearance. (This turns out to be a complete red herring.) So, pushing through a ceremonial portal, Lauren (yes, her character is herself) embarks on a stereotype-ridden journey into Chinatown to find Larry.

Along the way, Lauren (Stephenie Soohyun Park) encounters a host of blatant Chinese clichés: a disco-crazed Fu lion; garrulous elders demanding a “buy” to retrieve her dad; a “Tong” gangster named Shrimp Boy; a gratuitously violent F.B.I. shootout; a “face-changing” entertainer; a chiropractor/acupuncturist/herbalist; and, most obnoxious of all, the mincing, flamingly gay “Model Ancestor” who the Yees presume to venerate. Undeterred by this parade of nonsense, before sunset she must rescue her father by acquiring Chinatown’s loudest fireworks, sweetest oranges, and strongest whiskey, a test that, crazily played out with desperate clowning, could not be less interesting.

All this time her father is ridiculously rampaging around the Mission district, tearing down posters of his disgraced candidate on Geary and 19th streets. Lauren’s manic journey of discovery was, it seems, theatrical and thematically sterile. Chinatown’s contemporary problems—elder abuse, the disappearance of SROs, “paper names” that disguise real origins, skyrocketing rents and gentrification, and the persecution of undocumented restaurant workers—are introduced by a planted protester, then dismissed. (Strangely, there are also curious allusions to Jewish-Americans that might just be offensive if they made more sense.)

Yee varies the (in)action with pointless scenes between two Asian-American actors playing the roles in play and making obvious observations about white discrimination and their ethnic exploitation. Vainly pretending something’s at stake here, Mike Tutaj’s frantic projections punctuate the action.

At play’s end, Lauren discovers what the audience doesn’t—that her dad has something to offer. (That turns out to be an empty anecdote about his dad confessing his fear of being forgotten and of forgetting due to senility.) We’re to believe this breakthrough disclosure will work a reconciliation between Larry and Lauren. The play, we’re now told, is about beginnings, not saying goodbye. Except, given what little we learn, it’s not. It’s about Lauren Yee.

Rammel Chan, Angela Lin and Daniel Smith play assorted Asian-American caricatures of the Fu Manchu/Charlie Chan persuasion. Like everything on this stage, they are far more annoying than amusing.

With its in-jokes, private gossip, cute contrivances, and closed references, King of the Yees, at worst and at most, is Yee’s self-referential, narcissistically conceived concoction, a family album whose snapshots mean next to nothing. Lauren Yee is the once and future audience of King of the Yees. We needn’t bother.

photos by Liz Lauren

King of the Yees
Goodman Theatre
Owen Theatre, 170 North Dearborn
ends on April 30, 2017
for tickets, call 312.443.3800
or visit Goodman

for more shows,
visit Theatre in Chicago

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Linda Hill April 13, 2017 at 3:23 pm

Harsh! Very harsh! I thought the play was touching and endearing. We enjoyed it.


Tony S. April 15, 2017 at 10:14 pm

Hmmm… I agree with Linda. That’s not the experience I had at all. The crowd was literally laughing from beginning to end, and finished with a standing ovation from everyone in the theater. To me the play was very innovative and pulls you out of the directors seat within the first five minutes, which I personally love. Maybe you were in the wrong theater??? Definitely an unfair review, and seems a little personal…


Jack Lloyd April 16, 2017 at 5:35 pm

The review is misguided and mean. This is certainly not a perfect show and the young playwright can be self-indulgent at times. But King of the Yees works harder than James Brown to entertain the audience, contains about a thousand laughs, and is at times touching and thought provoking. I recommend you go see it.


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