One of my daughters was best friends with an Asian girl who was in the high school orchestra with her. They both played cello, but my daughter was more than aware that she was never going to be as proficient as her friend…and she was fine with that. Of course not: her friend’s entire life was academics and cello. My daughter had more varied interests: soccer, choir, boyfriends, anime, Harry Potter; etc. She was an excellent student and singer and a fine cello player, but her friend…well, her friend came from a Chinese family that came complete with what had, thanks to author Amy Chua, become known as a Tiger Mom. Whenever I ran into her, it was clear that she was exactly who I knew her to be from her daughter’s complaints: ultra-controlling. She was the kind of mom who, when her daughter did not make first chair (losing it to another Asian girl), demanded that she quit the instrument she’d been forced to practice for hours a day for years. If she couldn’t be the best, it was just not worth it.
I thought of her after watching the Mike Lew satirical comedy Tiger Style, now playing at Writers Theatre. Lew’s play is an often hilarious takedown of Asian stereotypes, told from the perspective of two adult children, one a highly successful oncologist (and concert pianist) and the other less successful but still an excellent computer programmer (and concert cellist). In the opening scenes, we realize that each of them has fallen victim to their parents’ demanding upbringing. Albert (Christopher Thomas Pow) is stuck deep within the “quiet and polite” stereotype: he never has wanted to rock the boat or demand much of himself in life other than to learn to program, and now is mired in a low-level job. He even allows others at his office to steal and take credit for his work (notably a very funny creation named Russ the Bus, played by Garret Lutz).
Albert’s sister Jennifer (Aurora Adachi-Winter), with whom he shares a home, has all the makings of a Tiger Mom herself. She has formulated a life plan for herself that accounts for every variability and every moment, but has left no space in it for the unexpected. When her lazy, unmotivated live-in lover (Lutz again)—whom, it is easy to see, she should have kicked out years ago—informs her that he is leaving her because she’s just “not fun,” she finds herself in unfamiliar territory, forced to admit that something might be wrong with her.
At first, the siblings blame their parents (Rammel Chan and Deanna Myers, each of whom plays multiple roles) and decide to “go full Western” and confront them, but it does not go as planned. As a result, they decide instead to “go full Eastern” and move to China, where they believe they will fit in better because there will be no stereotypes attached to them. They’ll just be Chinese, right? Never mind that neither speaks the language, understands the culture, or has a clue how they will live once they’ve arrived. Ironically, all of the pressure their parents put on them to succeed has left them utterly helpless.
Pow and Adachi-Winter are joys: it’s great fun to watch as they try to navigate their less-than-fulfilling lives, each playing off of a stoner loser played by Lutz who somehow manages to be happy. (Russ the Bus, who does not know how to program, cheats off of Albert—whom he calls “Al-bro”—so well that he is actually given a promotion that Albert deserves, while Jen’s ex-boyfriend Reggie is perfectly content installing car stereos and going to Bonaroo.) Adachi-Winter is just wonderful when she decides to try therapy and arrives with typed-out lists of everything that she thinks might be of interest, including her tax returns. The hilarious scene between her Type A character and Myers’ laid-back therapist is one of the play’s best.
In China, when they manage to get caught up in that country’s oppressive regime and thrown in jail, their guard (Chan, getting everything possible from the role) promises to release them if they can “play a sonata that makes me cry.” Even in this “gimme” situation, the two musician siblings fail. Apparently, life with Tiger Parents has not prepared them for anything at all. Lew’s play argues that anything at all minus happiness isn’t really worth much, and “tiger style” just isn’t about happiness. As another marvelous Adachi-Winter/Myers scene involving a Chinese matchmaker shows us, there just isn’t any room for happiness in a rigidly planned-out life.
Director Brian Balcom’s blocking is often a bit too repetitive for my taste, replete with too many “walk to the downstage corner and face out” moments, but his sharp satirical touches (including cartoon-like sound effects; sound designer Forrest Gregor had a field day on this one) and perfect pacing throughout complement Lew’s acerbic though rather rambling writing to make it clear that all stereotypes are harmful. Balcom’s comic style doesn’t even stop during scene changes, each of which is a mini-scene in itself. (Keep watching!)
Lauren M. Nichols’ modular set with roll-on furnishings and drop-down signage is lots of fun, especially as lit by Lee Fiskness. Props designer Rae Watson gets into the fun via a memorable bit with a laptop computer., and costume designer Christine Pascual must have enjoyed creating perfect character costumes, especially for the three performers playing multiple roles. One glance at them at any time tells you what kind of person they are this time.
I’m not sure that Tiger Style is a great satire, though it certainly is a very funny one. In covering so much narrative territory, it gets lost a few times and in others it finds itself too often going for silliness for the sake of silliness as it systematically blows up all of the stereotypes attached to these characters. Still, as Albert’s ultimate assertion of self makes clear, each of us must decide who we are and who we are not. It’s all we have.
Tiger Style is presented by Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Ct, Glencoe, and runs through Oct 30. For tickets and information, please visit Writers Theatre or call (847) 242-6000. For more Chicago reviews or show information, see chicagoonstage.com or theatreinchicago.com.