Where: Goodman Theatre, Owen Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.
When: through April 30
By ANNE SPISELMAN
At its heart, Lauren Yee’s “King of the Yees” is about the 30-year-old playwright’s quest to understand and connect with her 60-year-old father, Larry Yee, and their heritage as embodied in the centuries-old traditions of San Francisco’s Chinatown.
But the world premiere of the meta-theatrical play commissioned by Goodman Theatre and developed at the 2015 New Stages Festival takes a long time getting to the point.
The evening opens with two actors who say they’re Lauren (Angela Lin) and her father (Daniel Smith) explaining that the play is going to be about Larry and his participation in the arguably obsolescent Yee Fung Toy, one of many Chinese-American men’s associations that sprang up in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the late 19th century and spread across the country. Dedicated to the community and community service, it’s represented by the giant red chinoiserie doors of William Boles’ otherwise minimalist set design and later takes on a life of it’s own with the help of Heather Gilbert’s lighting.
Before this play can get underway, however, the “real” Larry Yee (Francis Jue) puts in an appearance, as does the “real” Lauren (Stephenie Soohyun Park), who seems embarrassed by her father. She keeps trying to get him offstage, as he explains more about the Yee Fung Toy, the concept of the “model ancestor” behind it, why he’s such an active member, his work for politician Leland Yee, and on and on. He also engages the audience, soliciting questions and bringing one man (Rammel Chan) up onstage. Lauren feels totally dissociated from all of this. She doesn’t speak Chinese and can’t open those red doors when she tries, even though she’s a Yee. Meanwhile the first Lauren and Larry are sidelined—sent backstage to take a break.
The rest of the first act is filled with similar antics—ranging from a lion dance to a comparison between
Chinese-Americans and Jews–alternating with Actor One (Smith) and Actor Two (Lin) waiting to be called back on. In the meantime, in some of the funniest scenes of the show, which is directed by Joshua Kahan Brody, they discuss various aspects of what it means to be an Asian actor, including a Second City-worthy skit on how to talk like you’re Chinese with half-Chinese Actor One instructing Korean Actor Two. The satire of cultural stereotypes is obvious, but the structure seems fragmented, and the stakes aren’t very high.
In Act Two, however, Larry Yee disappears. We see him go through the red doors, which open easily for him, after he learns that Leland Yee has been arrested for illegal activities (something that actually happened). Lauren looks for him everywhere but can’t find him, so she seeks advice from people she’s heard him mention, among them a chiropractor with a weird beard and a trio vaguely reminiscent of the witches in “Macbeth.”
She’s eventually instructed to search Chinatown to find the cheapest good whiskey, the sweetest oranges, and the loudest fireworks—all for free and all before sunset. Naturally there are obstacles along the way, chief among them a gangster called Shrimp Boy (like Leland Yee, a real person) who almost kills her but actually just wants her, being a playwright, to tell his story. Smith, Lin, and Chan play all the characters Lauren meets with aplomb, while Park is admirably sincere and natural as the playwright who learns to appreciate and embrace her background and family. Jue is simultaneously endearing and annoying as the father who, though American-born and Americanized himself, chose to accept his role in keeping his historic culture alive out of love and respect for his father.
Though the “King of the Yees” ends up being an amusing romp with a touching point, the problem for me is that the first half is so drawn out and repetitious that it undercuts the second. We get the point that Larry Yee is a good guy despite flaws like misplaced loyalty (to Leland Yee) without having to be shown and told at great length how he put up signs all over for the politician, even if this provides the impetus for Lauren to tell him he’s being taken advantage of. There also are confusing lapses in logic, among them the fact that the man called up from the audience never leaves the stage but rather becomes just like the two designated actors playing multiple roles.
On top of all this, as the evening progresses, we’re not exactly sure where we, the audience, are supposed to be. In a theater waiting (and perhaps wishing) for the original play to be presented? Running around Chinatown with Lauren? Inside the Yee Fung Toy?
Admittedly, I may be in the minority, because most of the press night audience thought the show was a hoot. It’s certainly well acted even if it could be more coherent.