The best-selling 2011 book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother was the confessions of a mother singularly focused on raising her Asian American children to be the very best in everything.
Well, in Tiger Style! the play now at Writers Theatre, the perfect kids grew up. And things aren’t going so well for them.
They are both Harvard graduates. Jennifer (Aurora Adachi-Winter) is a practicing oncologist who gets dumped by her boyfriend who installs car radio systems. “You’re too exhausting,” he tells her on the way out. Yes, she thinks he is beneath her and even he dumped her.
Albert (Christopher Thomas Pow), a computer programmer, gets passed over for every promotion. He winds up having a bozo for a supervisor, the very guy whose work Albert does for him and gets no credit.
And, oh, did I say, Jennifer is also a concert pianist and Albert a concert cellist.
In their efforts to figure out who they are, American or Chinese, and who to blame for their inability to fit in, they create a squabbling brother-sister duo who provide one laugh after another.
First, the one-liners are about trying to go “full western,” Then they are about trying to go “full Asian.” The struggle of trying to be “full themselves” is what makes the humor so appealing. Mike Lew, the playwright, addresses an important topic in dealing with racial stereotypes and cultural identities and he delivers it with unabashed humor.
Director Brian Balcom is an expert in keeping us entertained with characters popping nonstop in and out of new sets and new situations, reminiscent of the old TV show Laugh In, which had a rapid-fire series of gags and sketches.
It’s fun to keep track, because three of the actors play 11 parts.
The actors playing Albert and his sister Jennifer are the only ones who don’t have multiple roles, and they can’t because they’re on stage most of the time.
As Albert, Pow is fun to watch. He doesn’t have a clue as to why he doesn’t fit in and his searching for answers gets more and more frantic.
Jennifer is the epitome of the Asian stereotype. With lists for everything and everyone, she doesn’t understand why all her planning gets her professional success but no personal happiness. Adachi-Winter makes us laugh at her antics, but we feel compassion for her efforts.
Rammel Chen, who plays four roles, is especially appealing as Tzi Chuan, the older Chinese man who mysteriously appears to lead Albert astray.
Garrett Lutz plays Russ the Bus, among other characters, an outrageous figure who is an oppositional stereotype to Jennifer and Albert. He is the lazy and take-advantage American. But he plays every character with an appealing silliness.
Deanna Myers’ characters don’t have the comedic intent of the others. As the Chinese mother, she is blamed for everything that went wrong in her children’s upbringing. As the therapist and matchmaker, she exposes Jennifer’s limitations.
The first half of Tiger Style!, which deals with life in America, is dynamic, hysterically funny and feels authentic. The second half, which takes place in China, has its moments but with less universal appeal. The production is most remarkable for the all-around clever, entertaining and thoughtful actors who grab and hold attention throughout.
While the performance started with jokes based on Chinese American stereotypes, soon I just found myself laughing and identifying with universal life experiences.
Who doesn’t blame their parents for everything? The way of doing it just takes on different ethnic approaches. The same is true about trying to fit in and trying to find happiness.
Tiger Style! Invites us to think about the serious efforts to discover who we are and where we belong by way of laughter. It’s a delightful way to spend an evening.
Tiger Style! runs through Oct. 30 at Writers Theatre in Glencoe. Tickets range from $35 to $90, with $25 tickets for students. For more information, call the box office at (847) 242-6000 or visit the website.