Photo by Matthew C Yee
I admit it: when I first saw the title Lucy and Charlie’s Honeymoon, the first thing I thought of was Peanuts. I imagined Lucy sitting poolside with her new hubby Charlie and giving him analysis for a nickel after an argument about his continued infatuation with the little red-haired girl (now of course a full-grown red-haired woman). But Matthew C. Yee’s new musical is a far cry from “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” probably about as far as you can get. This absolutely wild world premiere play follows two newlywed “first-generation Asian American renegades” on a crazy, unplanned, financed-by-robbing-a-convenience-store post-nuptial vacation that ends up involving Charlie’s entire family, two security officers from an unnamed city that has done away with its police force in favor of “self-policing,” the FBI, a couple of human traffickers, and one of their would-be victims.
If that isn’t enough to pique your interest, it is also a hilariously realized full-fledged musical in which the instruments are played by members of the cast. Yee’s catchy songs, in a combination of Americana styles, allow us to see into the souls of all of the main characters (including a murderous trafficker: everyone gets a chance to solo). Judging from the intensely approving reactions and loud laughter of the opening night audience, Lookingglass Theatre has another major hit on its hands.
Yee himself plays Charlie Chan, a restless man who has never been able to make anything of himself. Yee plays guitar, sings, and acts here in addition to writing and composing. Fresh from Broadway’s Almost Famous, the Musical, he has not even slowed down. I’m almost amazed that he didn’t direct this play too, but Amanda Dehnert’s steady hands and creativity wring every bit of humor from Yee’s inventive script—a lot of which has to do with the aforementioned robbery, which goes wrong in practically all the ways—and find every ounce of family and Asian pride that is embedded within it.
Charlie and his new bride (played by Aurora Adachi-Winter) only met two weeks ago, but hey: when you know, you know. Both are free spirits and consider themselves “outlaws,” which pretty much explains the entirely impromptu nature of their honeymoon. Yee and Adachi-Winter are perfectly matched with these roles. Charlie is a bit more broken than Lucy, a wanna-be cowboy who lacks a real zest for independence even as he yearns for it. Lucy is the take-charge ball of energy who, having escaped from a relationship with a man who saw her as a “little China doll” to add to his collection, absolutely craves that independence and the adventure of living life by the straps of her sparkly red boots. Yee plays laconic extremely well and Adachi-Winter feels as if she might burst at any moment when she’s sitting still: a perfectly complementary couple.
The rest of the cast is equally excellent. Wai Ching Ho absolutely steals the show several times as Charlie’s immigrant grandma, a little old woman who is impossible to predict but very unlikely to sit around and allow danger to come to her “number one grandson.” She is consistently hilarious no matter what she is called to do. (Watch for her use of a paintbrush to simulate a gun, and then realize that it’s even sillier because she’s holding it like a paintbrush when the opposite way—holding the bristles and pointing with the handle—might at least have borne some faint resemblance to the pistol: a throwaway moment that very few members of the audience are likely to notice.) Paired with stoner Uncle Jeffrey (Daniel Lee Smith), her unemployed son who has moved back into Momma’s house in his 40s—”I live here too!” “You squat.“—and basically plays video games online against middle schoolers all day long, the two make an unlikely heroic team…but that won’t stop them from trying.
Mary Williamson plays Feinberg, the always-positive lesbian head security officer who arrives at the convenience store with her trainee, Peter Chan, played by Rammel Chan—coincidence alert! he’s Charlie’s brother!—to investigate the robbery, which has already gone viral because Charlie and Lucy are totally inept thieves. For example, they don’t even think to put their masks on before pulling their (toy) gun out, so the clerk and everyone on youtube gets a good look at their faces. A bit more planning might have been a good idea.
The glorious silliness of all of this, played out on a beautifully eclectic Yu Shibagaki set, would feel at home in a farce, but Yee has something else in mind. In a restroom at a gas station, Lucy runs into a fellow Chinese immigrant named Bao (Harmony Zhang) and quickly recognizes that the woman is being trafficked and her trafficker (Matt Bittner) is in the men’s room with Charlie. Never afraid of acting precipitously, Lucy—understanding that there is not enough time to convince the young woman of the truth of the trouble she is in—basically kidnaps Bao and escapes with her. Yee is equally fearless, inserting this serious and dangerous subplot into a whimsical musical comedy, and both actions clearly up the ante for the show’s second act, setting up a showdown involving all of the characters at a cabin in the woods.
(Don’t let your mind go there: this is not a horror show.)
Bittner’s character isn’t the real bad guy here; he’s just down on his luck and needs to make some money. The truly evil character is Doug Pawlik’s sleazy, depraved Martin, the man who runs this trafficking group and seems to take pleasure in killing people who don’t play their assigned roles. As hideous as he is, though, the silliness of the rest of the play makes it unlikely that, when he arrives at the cabin, anything too awful will ensue.
In a lot of ways, though, the real villain of this play is the stereotype of the macho American male. Yee acknowledges in a program note that he believes that “Americans still think they are cowboys, protecting their cattle and standing up to a tyrannical government.” Both Lucy and Charlie have come to desire this experience, though neither really understands it. They see “cowboy” as the free man riding the range, unbeholden to anyone but himself…which is why they set themselves up as “renegades” in the first place.
It’s this unapologetically swaggering mentality that lets Martin and others like him feel that it’s acceptable to do what they do. In his case, because he personally holds highly stereotypical opinions about Asian women, they become his quarry. Yee, well aware of these stereotypes, does not shy away from them, though he goes out of his way to let the audience see other sides of his characters. Of all of the people in this cast, for instance, the one you would least likely want to tangle with may well be tiny Lucy, who is unafraid of anything. Yes, she and Bao are viewed by men as easy conquests, but Yee makes it clear that, in both cases, that simply isn’t true. Rammel Chan’s Peter, too, finds ways to celebrate his heritage by simply acknowledging it: sure, maybe he’s a bit nebbishy and lacks machismo, but he possesses a deep and honorable spirit. (And Yee even lets him have a song to show off his sexier side.)
The point here is to thoroughly entertain while debunking often-hurtful stereotypes. Even Grandma and Uncle Jeffrey, though their lives seem to validate these old formulas, prove themselves far more than what they seem. They are wondrously funny characters, but they are also real people, like everyone else. If we could all remember that, maybe we all could live in better harmony.
Lucy and Charlie’s Honeymoon is a Lookingglass Theatre production and is playing at 821 Michigan Ave, Chicago, until July 16. Tickets are available at the Lookingglass Theatre box office. For more Chicago reviews or show information, see chicagoonstage.com or theatreinchicago.com.