Goodman's 'King of the Yees' takes comic, touching look at generational and cultural divides
Lauren Yee's world-premiere cross-cultural comedy "King of the Yees" is all over the place. But that's part of its charm in director Joshua Kahan Brody's enjoyably twist-filled production at Chicago's Goodman Theatre.
"King of the Yees" begins as the playwright (Angela Lin) and actor (Daniel Smith) portraying her father, Larry Yee, lay out what the play aims to accomplish. It's a personal-is-political look at a parent-child relationship and how it symbolically embodies the precarious state of San Francisco's Chinatown and its dwindling family associations.
But this establishing setup is quickly upended as "the real Larry Yee" (Francis Jue) barges in and interrupts "the real Lauren Yee" (Stephenie Soohyun Park) to turn "King of the Yees" into a playful Pirandellian comedy. The actor-audience divide gets compromised by more "real people" (including Rammel Chan as a dubious long-lost cousin) as Lauren and her humble play get mercilessly scrutinized. Where are the issues of sexism, ageism and gentrification, one questioner relentlessly asks. And Lauren's father takes his daughter to task for dwelling on problems rather than celebrating Chinese culture with the usual lion dancers and erhu players.
Yet through these uncomfortably funny exchanges, the actual playwright squeezes in copious historical details and context. This cleverly brings audiences up to speed on many challenges facing old Cantonese-speaking communities who have historically been ghettoized in America.
Once the exposition is through, "King of Yees" sprints off in a number of directions. There's some intrigue involving the notorious gangster "Shrimp Boy" and problems with Larry Yee's devoted support of unrelated California Secretary of State candidate Leland Yee.
"King of the Yees" also encompasses a series of cutting comedy sketches where Lin and Smith as actors playing actors hilariously debate and fall prey to Western pop cultural stereotypes of Asian-Americans. And by Act II, "King of the Yees" morphs into a mystical, if sometimes silly, quest where the heroine must solve riddles and pass cultural tests to rescue an imperiled loved one.
Throughout, Yee taps into larger ideas and questions of what it means to be authentically Chinese-American. Yet, at the same time, "King of the Yees" is a universal and personal play about grown children and the difficulties of connecting with their aging parents.
The comedy daringly keeps multiple plot and character plates spinning in the air. But it largely succeeds thanks to the fast-paced work of director Brody and his talented cast and crew.
Helping to keep things fleet is Mike Tutaj's expert projection designs that animate designer William Boles' elegantly simple set of imposing red doors and beams. Both designers' spurts of stage magic help keep the divergent directions of "King of the Yees" on course.
Chan, Lin and Smith all have a field day as changeling performers playing an assortment of oddball characters ranging from a haggling liquor store employee to a Jewish-sounding acupuncturist/herbalist/chiropractor -- with designer Izumi Inaba's characteristic quick-change costumes an immeasurable help. Jue also has fun embodying Larry Yee as a small-time wheeler-dealer who is able to call in favors all over Chinatown.
Some might find Park's take on Lauren to be too demure and not exasperated enough, especially when Jue's Larry usurps the play. Yet Park as Lauren succeeds as a dutiful daughter whose perfectionism imperils her family connections.
In the end, the play ultimately packs an emotional punch as it stresses the importance of bridging both cultural and generational divides before time runs out.
"King of the Yees"★ ★ ★
Location: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St., Chicago, (312) 443-3800 or goodmantheatre.org/Yees
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday (also April 18 and 23), 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday (and April 27); through April 30
Running time: About two hours and 10 minutes with intermission
Parking: Area pay lots and limited metered street parking
Rating: For teens or older: profanity and some violence