Albert and Jennifer Chen — the overachieving, Harvard-educated Chinese-American siblings at the heart of Mike Lew’s Alliance Theatre world premiere “Tiger Style!” — have had it with the unfair office politics, the slacker boyfriends, the pushy parents.
Albert (Jon Norman Schneider) is a diligent, quietly focused software programmer who deserves a promotion but gets passed over in favor of a loud and obnoxious train wreck named Russ the Bus. (Seems “Al-bro” just doesn’t have the right leadership qualities.) Jennifer (Ruibo Qian) is a super-successful oncologist whose life plan unravels when her slacker boyfriend suddenly abandons her. (Seems she’s just too intense to be a good partner.)
In the tradition of spoiled, ungrateful children everywhere, they blame their well-meaning parents (played by Francis Jue and Emily Kuroda). And, when their confrontational approach to their ethnic-identity crisis backfires, they embark on a journey of self-discovery to China, where they encounter a set of obstacles that makes life back home look like a snooze in the park.
Lew, whose play “Bike America” was the winner of the 2012-2013 Alliance/Kendeda National Graduate Playwriting Competition in 2013, has said in an interview that his tale of ferocious parents and their frustrated children mirrors his own family history. (“Tiger parenting” is a stereotype used to describe the rigorous demands that some Asian-American parents place on their kids to succeed.)
The first half of the play, in which the Chins remain on American soil, is a promising and original premise that exploits, and exaggerates, the conundrum of belonging to two cultures but not quite feeling at home in either.
After the wild comedic ride of Act One, the “Asian Freedom Tour” of the second half goes jarringly off track. In making the journey from California to China, from smart urban comedy to babes-in-the-wood fairy tale, Lew loses his way. The story is shanghaied by its comic-book capers, over-the-top tone and abrupt ending. (Wait, what just happened?)
Ultimately, “Tiger Style!” is a flimsy and puzzling choice for an Alliance mainstage show.
That said, director Moritz Von Stuelpnagel does his best with the uneven material. The performances — and the design — are universally strong. (Wilson Chin’s sets, Amy Clark’s costumes and Ken Yunker’s lighting are all top-notch.)
Qian’s Jennifer is brittle, uptight, desperately unaware of herself — as her misguided attempt at psychotherapy proves. Schneider’s Albert is adorably agitated by everyone he encounters: from the supremely irritating Russ (Bobby Labartino) to an elderly Chinese stalker to his close-minded boss (both played by the excellent Jue).
Kuroda, Jue and Labartino are required to play a variety of roles, and they do so with precision and comedic aplomb.
In the end, you can’t blame the Alliance for wanting to target new voices from an underserved community. But it’s a disservice to the playwright and the audience not to shape the work into a more cohesive design. “Tiger Style!” is in desperate need of some tough love and tiger parenting.
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