AN IDENTITY QUEST COMES UP EMPTY
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/
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
Owen Theatre, 170 North Dearborn
ends on April 30, 2017
for tickets, call 312.443.3800
or visit Goodman
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