By Eric Marchese | Special to the NB Indy
Since the start of the 21st century, South Coast Repertory has produced a steady stream of great plays documenting the lives of Asians who make the U.S. their home, including “Vietgone” and “Cambodian Rock Band” (to name a few).
Taking its place among these masterpieces and now playing on the Argyros stage is “Tiger Style!”
Mike Lew’s top-notch script delivers his take on what it means to be of Asian heritage but to consider oneself American by virtue of having been born, raised and educated here.
This delightful, laugh-packed play looks at events in the lives of Albert Chen (Jon Norman Schneider) and sister Jennifer Chen (Amy Kim Waschke) during a few crucial days in their lives circa November, 2019.
Born and raised in Irvine, these ridiculously intelligent, talented and accomplished siblings seem to have it all – yet now, having reached their mid-30s, each has begun to feel undervalued and unappreciated.
Software engineer Albert watches as his lazy younger co-worker is promoted to supervisor, while oncology doctor Jennifer goes to pieces when her live-in rock musician boyfriend breaks up with her and moves out on the same day.
In consoling one another, the duo come to realize that their Chinese parents are at fault, using “tiger-style” parenting to push them to over-achieve and excel at everything while failing to prepare them for success in the real world.
Frustrated by years of Asian stereotypes and racial assumptions being projected onto them, Albert and Jennifer first confront their parents. When their efforts backfire, they then choose to negate their heritage by going “full Western.”
That approach also fails, prompting the siblings to embark on a journey to Shenzen, China. Whether that tactic brings fulfillment or only further frustration can’t be said without turning this review into a spoiler.
Suffice it to say that Chinese or not, and Asian or not, anyone descended from immigrants, anyone with parent or sibling issues, and anyone who has experienced a rocky career or love life will have a ball seeing “Tiger Style!”
Full credit goes, of course, to Lew’s constantly laugh-inducing script, Ralph B. Peña’s hip, informed direction, and the stellar work of SCR’s cast of five. Se Oh’s scenic design ingeniously facilitates the flow of the script, aided immeasurably by Hana S. Kim’s colorful, eye-catching projection design.
First performed in 2015, “Tiger Style!” was later revised and is now set in November of 2019, just as the world has begun to hear about and react to the coronavirus.
As such, playwright Lew inventively uses the story’s perspective to ridicule issues of the impending pandemic from our current vantage point. That means lines like “in 2020, we should be staying at home all the time” are surefire laugh-getters.
Lew is both whip-smart and something of a smartass, and his well-crafted script is hilarious – often bitterly so. The text deftly mixes broad humor with sharp-edged comedic daggers, resulting in a play that’s ironic, raucous, raunchy and oh-so funny.
Without revealing too much, the siblings’ visit to China offers irony and surrealism, its events even more fast-moving than those of Act One. (Love that destination board at the Chinese airport, where Irvine is included alongside world-famous locations like New York City, Singapore, Tokyo, Moscow, Dubai and Chicago.)
Sharing many scenes, Schneider and Waschke exhibit their characters’ self-absorption, neuroses, and a spirit of rivalry and competition that only proves their point that somewhere along the way, each took a wrong turn.
Comedically overwrought (and suitably so), both actors show us time and again how Albert and Jennifer are often their own worst enemies.
Schneider’s Albert is self-serious, dutiful, diligent, industrious, and always willing to sacrifice himself for the greater good. Once awakened to the problem, he castigates himself as “deferential” and “dickless” (among other comedically choice terms).
Waschke’s Jennifer is a mixture of high-caliber brainpower and a belief in the hokey happy endings of the typical rom-com that’s both misguided and appealing. Her performance is a marvel of comedic timing – quite a feat considering the brilliant work of her castmates.
As the siblings’ parents, Emily Kuroda and Daisuke Tsuji (subbing for Ryan Yu in the performance reviewed) are unexpectedly reasonable and level-headed. Effecting lightning-fast personality and costume changes, each also essays three more characters.
Kuroda plays a therapist made defensive and combative by Jennifer’s verbal barbs and a sternly efficient, rigidly rule-bound matchmaker in Red China; Tsuji shines as a slick, sly, shady Chinese native who has been keeping dossiers on the Chen sibs and as a Chinese general who brings Albert to an underground bunker, ordering him to hack the computers of the Chinese government’s enemies.
Derek Manson delivers memorable portrayals of three Americans who seem to exist only to frustrate and thwart the Chens: Albert’s lazy, undeservedly lucky colleague Russ; Jennifer’s slacker boyfriend Reggie; and a Department of Homeland Security customs agent whose binary view of everything offers no room for nuance and whose superficial persona will remind many of comic actor Andy Dick.
While following Albert and Jennifer, Lew slips in a humorously heapin’ helping of critiques aimed at American society and culture – for example, that non-Asians carry preconceptions toward and use “code words” around all Asians, or that in the U.S., the word “race” only ever refers to black versus white while failing to include anyone else.
The talented playwright, though, doesn’t neglect the wrenching process Jennifer and Albert undergo, even while deftly averting bathos. Late in the play, the two revert to their childhoods, hearing their parents’ voice in their minds while performing a poignant sonata on piano and cello, giving us a glimpse of the pressures and high expectations they endured as children.
At its core, “Tiger Style!” is an examination of the nature of identity. Albert notes that “everywhere we go, we’re never accepted,” and he and Jennifer exert considerable effort trying to unravel who they really are – as individuals, as Asians born in the U.S., culturally, and a whole lot more.
Julianne Argyros Stage, South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Through June 5. Running time (intermission included): About two hours. Tickets: $26 to $98. Purchase/information: (714) 708-5500, www.scr.org.