Theatre review: King of the Yees’ search for identity trips over its own plot

Milton Lim, Andrea Chu star in King of the Yees. Photo: Emily Cooper

It doubtless started out as a viable, if overstuffed, idea.

Write a comedy about the erosion of Chinese culture and tradition when it’s transplanted to contemporary America. Illustrate the resonant theme of cultural identity by making the two main characters the likeable Larry Yee, a 60-year-old father who honours tradition, and Lauren Yee, his thoroughly westernized, Ivy League school-educated daughter who makes her living as a playwright. 

Weave in a loving-but-fraught relationship between father and daughter and a search for personal identity. Set the whole thing in Chinatown, say it’s a true story, and call it King of the Yees.

But then San Francisco-born playwright Lauren Yee, like a pop-eyed kid let loose in a candy store, couldn’t help herself. She had to have a taste of meta-theatre and that irresistible sweet, a play within a play. She was pretty much forced to sample some Alice in Wonderland-like fantasia. There were all those funny Chinese-American stereotypes to explode, like the stringy-bearded chiropractor acupuncturist herbalist. And really, how could one not scoop up a handful of jokes even if they are either flat-out limp or go on far too long?

And while you’d think that surfeit of sugary confections would leave everyone hyped and jangling, the production of Yee’s play by Richmond, B.C.’s Gateway Theatre now at the National Arts Centre is oddly listless.

If that preamble hasn’t left you too dispirited, here’s some of what happens – or doesn’t – in the show.

It opens with two actors played by Raugi Yu and Donna Soares rehearsing King of the Yees. Suddenly, the “real” Larry and Lauren Yee (Jovanni Sy and Andrea Yu, respectively) appear on stage, hijacking the rehearsal and, before you know it, acting out their own story.

Thing is, the story gets out of “playwright” Lauren’s control, as searches for identity are apt to do. We learn she’d planned to write a play about the traditional all-male associations once so central to Chinese life in San Francisco and to which her father is still an adherent. Not surprisingly, these associations have slid into obsolescence, a source of conflict between the normally ebullient, give-you-the-shirt-off-his-back Larry and his devoted but independent daughter.

Disagreement between the two about the importance of heritage in Chinese-American life balloons, Larry disappears, and Lauren goes searching for him in Chinatown (a search for her true self, in case you hadn’t cottoned to the metaphor).

During her search – it’s a good thing that Yee’s text occasionally reminds of its urgency because you’d never know it from Yu’s performance – Lauren bumps up against a lion dancer, a face changer, an Asian-American gangster named Shrimp Boy, an FBI agent, and other stuff, some of it involving the show’s fifth performer, Milton Lim. It was mid-way through that search that my guest for the evening, who subsequently wondered aloud if King of the Yees wasn’t “the worst play I’ve ever seen,” fell soundly asleep.

Oh, I almost forgot. The two actors rehearsing King of the Yees at the top of the show do reappear from time to time in clumsy scene changes under director Sherry J. Yoon. They talk about themselves and about the “real” Larry and Lauren, including Larry’s unwavering support of a corrupt politician named Leland Yee.

To give the show its due, there are a couple of funny scenes, including one in which the Korean-born actor playing Lauren at the beginning of the show is given lessons by her fellow actor in how to pronounce “Chinese” as a Chinese immigrant to North America would say the word.

But, like most scenes in the show, it overstays its welcome. And, of course, Yee can’t resist extending the joke by having the Korean actor teach her colleague how to say “Korean.”

You want more failings? How about Yoon’s directorial style, which results in performers skirting even the basics of comic timing such as a quick response when another character speaks? Or the total lack of tension – dramatic, comic or otherwise – during a shoot out with that FBI agent?

You get the picture. The only question remaining is why NAC English Theatre artistic director Jillian Keiley programmed the show in the first place.

King of the Yees was reviewed Friday night. It continues until Nov. 11 in the Babs Asper Theatre. Tickets:

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Patrick Langston covered English professional theatre for the Ottawa Citizen from 2008 to 2016. He also wrote about music, travel, the local housing industry and other subjects for the paper. Patrick continues to contribute to Ottawa Magazine, Diplomat and International Canada Magazine, and other publications.