Ching Chong Chinaman, currently performing at West End Theatre in a production by Pan-Asian Rep, is a smart, fast-paced comedy that wrings laughs from the topics of cultural identity and assimilation. Neither predictable nor politically correct, it’s a satirical cartoon that has heart and even occasional poignancy.
The play is mostly set in the suburban kitchen of the Wongs, a Chinese-American family living in Palo Alto — headed by dad Ed (Ron Nakahara) and mom Grace (Fay Ann Lee) — who are so removed from Asian culture that they have trouble ordering Chinese food and don’t know how to use chopsticks.
The family’s picture-perfect, thoroughly American lifestyle is upset when teenage son Upton Sinclair Lewis (Jon Norman Schneider) imports a young man from China (billed in the program as The Chinese Man, and played by James Chen) as an indentured servant to do his homework and chores, freeing himself up to obsess over the “World of Warcraft” video game. The family is so divorced from its ethnic identity that teenage daughter Desdemona (Jennifer Lim) responds to the stranger at the breakfast table thusly: “Who is that Asian guy?”
Yee uses the presence of the stranger to both joke with and subvert stereotypes about Chinese-Americans, cheerfully sabotaging our expectations. Desdemona, obsessed with her application for early admission into Princeton, turns out to be terrible at math, for instance, and the Chinese-speaking stranger is revealed to be an aspiring tap dancer hoping for a shot on an American TV dance show.
The playwright also surprises with repeated detours into more stylized fantasy scenes, such as when she has Desdemona interacting with the impoverished young Asian woman (Angela Lin, giving the show’s standout performance) she cluelessly imagines she has saved from poverty with sponsorship. Meanwhile, isolated scenes of direct address allow the playwright to take the comic temperature down a few degrees and solidify the characters, such as when dad Ed (Ron Nakahara) briefly reflects on his role in the family.
Director May Adrales has paced the production wisely so it neither lags nor feels artificially hurried. The staging, on Gian Marco Lo Forte’s efficient but disappointingly not especially attractive set, handily delineates the play’s action and uses the space inventively. The only real disappointment is that the space hasn’t been used inventively enough for the dance sequences between Grace and the stranger; the performers simply don’t have the room to put them over.