By Mike Hoban
‘Tiger Style’ – written by Mike Lew; Directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel; Scenic Design by Wilson Chin; Costume Design by Junghyun Georgia Lee; Lighting Design by Matthew Richards; Sound Design by Palmer Hefferan. Presented by the Huntington Theatre Company at Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA, 527 Tremont Street, Boston through November 20
Art is subjective.
And if you believe that comedy is an art form (as I do), then it stands to reason that comedy is a matter of taste which, of course, there’s no accounting for. While a pie in the face may leave one person doubled over in laughter, another may just shake their head at the silliness. ‘Tiger Style’, the new Mike Lew comedy playing at the Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA, is a prime example of how what works for one person may not necessarily for another.
Much like its Chinese-American millennial protagonists – ‘Tiger Style’ appears to be searching for its (comic) identity. It wants to be a “smart comedy” that makes a point about cultural stereotyping of Asians in America, but it plays too much like a zany sitcom, where outrageous lines that seem to have little to do with the characters are randomly tagged on to generate laughs. Playwright Lew appears to be trying have it both ways, and while there are some undeniably funny scenes and jokes in the play, the somewhat promising first act goes wildly off the rails into a series of bizarre Pee-Wee’s Playhouse outtakes in Act II that almost totally invalidate the play’s ending. But if laughs are what you’re looking for, you could certainly do a lot worse than ‘Tiger Style’.
Jennifer and Albert are an academically gifted but socially challenged brother and sister that live together in her condo along with her boyfriend. The pair were pushed along the high achievement path as kids by the “Tiger Mother” style of Chinese parenting, to the point that not only did they both graduate from Harvard, but also performed a concerto for piano and cello at a sold-out Carnegie Hall – when they were just kids. Jennifer is traditionally successful in her career as an oncologist, Albert less so as a tech guy, but their ability to function as adults is woefully lacking.
Albert has just been passed over for a promotion at his tech job, for a lunk (a very funny Bryan T. Donovan, who plays a number of roles) named Russ the Bus, whose idea of teamwork is letting Albert do all the work while they share the credit. Jenny, an oncologist at a major hospital, would appear to be the epitome of success, but that still doesn’t prevent her from being in a live-in relationship with a dolt who installs car stereo systems for a living (although given the technology for cars today, it’s not like he’s pumping gas). When he dumps her because she doesn’t meet his expectations of “exotic” yet “submissive” (a nod to the supposed traits of all Asian women by westerners), she falls apart completely.
Stung by their inability to accept themselves as failures on any level, they prove that they are deeply American – by looking for someone to blame. They come to the (possibly false) realization that their parents are the culprits, for pushing them so hard academically and leaving them without life skills – or something like that. Albert declares, “I’m going to yell at our Mom like a white girl”, and the two set off to unload on their parents. But when mom and dad refuse to co-sign their B.S., they decide to go “Full Western” and behave like insufferable (white) millennials. Albert adopts an in-your-face persona that causes him to lose his job, while Jenny hopes to turn her life into a “rom-com” by getting therapy (the scene between her and the therapist, as she tries to schedule her road to wellness, is spot on and hilarious).
When going Western fails, they decide to go East on an “Asian Freedom Tour” – returning to China where they expect to be embraced by people that are “just like them,” – despite the fact that they’re entitled Americans who don’t even speak Chinese. This is where the play sinks to a level of plausibility you would expect from a “Saved by the Bell” episode, with each successive scene weirder than the next. Again, like much of this play, there are enough laughs to hold your interest, including a heroin reference that is actually explosively funny. On the night I attended, there were times when the audience erupted in laughter, and it seemed to work for a good portion of the crowd. ‘Tiger Style’s’ comedy may not be my cup of tea, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be yours. For more info, go to: www.huntingtontheatre.org/