King of the Yees
Playwright Lauren Yee explores her family dynamics and what it means to be Chinese-American in modern times.
There are intriguing themes considered in Lauren Yee's comedy King of the Yees, currently running at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, particularly about the playwriting process and how artists begin with a preconceived notion only to broaden their scope as they discover the truth of these subjects.
Yee filters these ideas through the lens of a fictional version of herself: two actors (Angela Lin and Daniel Smith) who are rehearsing an autobiographical play by Lauren (Stephenie Soohyun Park) when her traditional but gregarious father, Larry (Francis Jue), interrupts. The elder Yee is turning 60 and holds dear his traditions and pride as a member of the Yee dynasty, while his daughter who was raised in San Francisco's Chinatown and never learned Chinese, does not have children, and will soon be moving to Germany with her Jewish husband. However, when Larry disappears, Lauren goes on a journey through Chinatown to find him and ultimately discovers her family's roots and understands her father's ways.
Though there are many laugh-out-loud moments, King of the Yees blends conflicting elements of farce, family drama, black comedy, whimsical asides, and musical dance-offs in a way that muddles the play's purpose. Director Joshua Kahan Brody stages too many moments — like characters breaking into the Fiddler on the Roof wedding dance or a gangster turning the surroundings into a Quentin Tarantino movie — that leave the audience more perplexed than entertained. Stage techniques, like the characters moving in fast motion as if forwarded on a DVD player, are well handled but seem more like gimmicks than enhancements.
It's the side characters who leave us feeling intrigued about what this play could have been. Two actors (Lin and Smith) banter about accents and being Asian actors, which is both funny and thought-provoking. When we turn to the protagonist's story, which in Act 2 becomes a scavenger hunt to save her father, the piece loses momentum as it goes in too many directions. The main relationship between the elder and younger Yee is diluted by a series of gangsters and crooked politicians.
Park seems uncomfortable taking on the role of Lauren Yee. Her stilted acting makes it difficult to warm to her character, too. Jue is charming as the elder Yee. He plays the character as seen through a daughter's perspective. Spirited and childlike in his enthusiasm, he perfectly portrays how the younger generation views aging parents. Lin and Smith are hilarious as the two actors forced to kill time and hang out together. They have great chemistry and their conversations seem natural. Rammel Chan brings a boyish charisma to the hapless bystander role.
The focal point of the minimalist set by William Boles is a majestic, ornate red door that brings the color and allure of Chinatown into the theater. Mike Tutaj's video projections animate the door, making it look like it's winking or levitating, to give it the illusion of coming to life. Lighting designer Heather Gilbert floods the stage with complementary reds and greens.
With a more focused story line, King of the Yees could have been a heartfelt and humorous probe into assimilation and the need for community. But too much inanity leads the play astray, leaving it unclear what Yee ultimately wants to say.