King of the Yees
Reviewed by Katie Buenneke
Kirk Douglas Theatre
Through August 6
Fans of the fourth wall — that imaginary wall separating performers from their audience — should steer clear of Lauren Yee’s new play King of the Yees, now playing at the Kirk Douglas in Culver City. But for more adventurous folks, those willing to throw caution (and conventional theatrical tradition) to the wind, the show proves a fun ride, full of twists and turns.
The story follows Lauren Yee (yes, the playwright is a character in the show, but she’s played by Stephenie Soohyun Park) as she tries to write a play about her father, Larry (Francis Jue). The story of her father is inextricably bound up with stories of San Francisco’s Chinatown, where he grew up and still lives. Two of the actors in Yee’s play, Angela Lin and Daniel Smith, have been cast as Lauren and her father (they are later joined by Rammel Chan to complete the ensemble), but the real Larry interrupts the proceedings, thoroughly embarrassing the real Lauren in the process.
Lauren —or at least the version of her we see in the show — doesn’t feel too connected to Chinatown, or the Yee Fung Toy, the social club for Yee men that Larry is very involved in. Lauren went east for college and stayed there after graduation, and she’s about to move to Berlin with her (white) husband. She’s never learned Cantonese, and feels distant from her family. She doesn’t understand why her father spends so much of his time trying to get a man named Leland Yee (who may or may not actually be a relation) elected to various public offices. Operating under the guiding principle that it’s better not to try something than to perform it incorrectly, Lauren has effectively walled herself off from her father and her culture.
But she’s forced into action when things go south with Leland and he’s arrested for corruption (something which actually happened to the very real Leland Yee). Larry goes missing, and Lauren must acknowledge and embrace the Chinese-American culture she’s kept at arms’ length to get him back. It’s a literal and spiritual journey, and innovative enough to be quite engaging.
Perhaps on purpose, the writing feels like it’s not yet fully-formed, but it mostly works. The production keeps the audience on its toes — it’s impossible to guess where the play will go next, since it jumps from relaying jokes at a breakneck sitcom pace to paying homage to various cultural touchstones to underlining sad universal truths about aging and families. For the most part, Yee gracefully weaves these disparate pieces together, but the show feels like it could use more connective tissue between scenes, as it still seems a bit disjointed.
Under Joshua Kahan Brody’s direction, the cast operates like a well-oiled machine, having ironed out their performances in the show’s world-premiere run at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre earlier this year. The set (William Boles), while minimal, is effective, particularly when aided by Mike Tutaj’s projections.
King of the Yees is an exciting new work that plays with the theatrical form in a fun and engaging way. It’s not a perfect play, but it’s thoroughly enjoyable, and Yee is a fresh voice worth listening to.
Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City; Tues.-Wed., 8pm; Thurs,. 8:30pm; Fri,, 8 pm; Sat., 2 pm & 8 pm; Sun., 1 pm & 6:30 pm; through Aug. 6. www.centertheatregroup.org/tickets/kirk-douglas-theatre/2016-17/king-of-the-yees/. Running time: two hours and 10 minutes with a 15-minute intermission.