The Wongs are not your stereotypical Chinese-American family from Palo Alto. Oh sure, dad likes to spout tin-eared platitudes, mom has squelched her dreams to raise a family, sis is a 4.42 GPA high-school student obsessed with getting into an Ivy League university, and Junior is a classic video-game nerd. But beneath this familiar veneer of comfortable clichés, something is not right in the house of Wong.
Aided by the deft direction of Jeffrey Bracco, playwright Lauren Yee's Ching Chong Chinaman, now through February 24, 2013, at City Lights Theater Company in San Jose, is packed with snappy, funny dialogue and quick scene changes, having more in common with an episode of The Big Bang Theory than a play by David Henry Hwang. That's not a bad thing. In fact, it was something of a relief to see and hear serious issues of cultural identity handled with such casual irreverence.
Like a good TV sitcom, Chinaman juggles multiple plots, each with its own looming deadline, a formulaic device to force resolution and keep things moving. Predictably, household patriarch Ed (Lawrence-Michael C. Arias) gets the dullest story: He must find a member of his family to participate in his company's annual golf tournament. His wife, Grace (Chiho Saito), on the other hand, is fixated on having a baby, even though she and Ed have a 17-year-old daughter, Desdemona (Monica Ho), who's about to head off to college, and a 15-year-old son, Upton (Anthony Chan), still living at home.
Desi, as her dad calls her, is a nervous wreck, waiting for that all-important letter from Princeton, where she has applied for early admission (Desi's curt dismissal of Stanford as a palatable alternative is priceless). Meanwhile, Upton is trying to log enough hours on World of Warcraft to earn himself a trip to an international video-game competition in Seoul.
And what of Jinqiang (Nick Louie), the 20-year-old Chinese refugee Upton's brought home to help him with his homework so he can keep playing games? Ching Chong, or J, as he's variously called, has his dreams, too. Encouraged by his mother (Anna Lee throws herself into this and numerous other small roles), Jinqiang has come to America not to meet a girl like Desdemona at a fancy institution of higher learning but to win the $100,000 prize offered by a TV show called America's Next Top Dancer.
Despite giving the play its title, Ching Chong is mostly a loitering presence in the family's kitchen and laundry room, and his eventual relationship with Grace, which is meant to be an important plot twist, is really a red herring. It's not that Louie is not convincing as Jinqiang -- he does all the script asks of him, but Yee doesn't ask much.
The playwright was clearly more interested in Desdemona's story, which Ho animates with a ferocious and fearless performance. Her character's only discordant notes are the fault of Yee, who, for some reason, has decided that Desdemona should not only be in a froth over whether or not she'll get into Princeton, but also over the struggle she's having trying to write a personal statement that must accompany her application (yes, the one she's already submitted). Maybe there's some arcane fact about the timing of such statements, but if so, it was lost on me.
Worse, Yee undermines the big reveal late in the play between Desdemona and her dad. In a somewhat forced scene, during which father and daughter bond by binge drinking tequila shots, Yee allows Ed to slip a secret that seems to explain why Desdemona is so vexed by the authenticity required in her personal statement. Desi doesn't notice her dad's goof, but we do, which sucks the air out of Ed's really big moment with his daughter a handful of scenes later.
Better are the play's ironies, big and small. For example, I loved how at dinner, the Wongs are unable to use chopsticks to eat the take-out Chinese food Grace has ordered to make their new houseguest feel at home, while Jinqiang finds it equally impossible to swallow the American version of his native cuisine. Even better, instead of painting Upton as a disengaged loner who walls himself off from his family, Yee has given us a son who's desperate for his family's attention. In a nice twist, they're so preoccupied with themselves, they end up being the ones who keep the lad at arm's length.
Ching Chong Chinaman runs through February 24, 2013, at City Lights Theater Company in San Jose. For tickets and information visit cltc.org.
Photos by Robyn Winslow.