The many pleasures of King of the Yees, directed by Joshua Kahan Brody at the Mark Taper Forum, emerge not from playwright Lauren Yee’s rambling unfocused script but from the abundant talents of its versatile ensemble and the production’s colorful staging.
An import from the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, Yee’s autographically inspired play turns on the playwright’s relationship with her father, Larry, played with amiable charm by Francis Jue. Brought up in San Francisco’s Chinatown, Larry is a devotee of his community’s traditional culture, represented by the Yee Fung Toy Family Association, a social club for men that developed in the 19th century when otherwise shunned and maligned Chinese workers were employed to build the railroad in the American West. Larry’s close identification with his family name manifests in his membership in the club and in his support for Leland Yee, a local politician (and a real person), whose campaigns Larry actively participates in by putting up signs and hosting fundraising events. His veneration of the name Yee embraces a centuries-old myth about a “model” ancestor who once rescued his clan from extinction.
The almost childishly trusting Larry finds a foil in his Yale-educated daughter, playwright Lauren (Stephenie Soohyun Park), who’s married and lives in New York and is about to move to Berlin. Lauren feels little connection with her roots; she speaks no Cantonese and pooh-poohs her father’s celebration of the family. Most significantly, she’s not sure she wants to have kids. Her attitudes, especially about children, wound her father but, gentle soul that he is, he responds with sorrow rather than anger.
Act 1 putt-putts to a slow start but eventually takes off, propelled by Jue’s beguiling performance as Larry, who actively seeks support for his opinions from the audience, and at one point even passes out voter registration forms to front-row patrons in his drive for universal citizens’ franchise.
Larry’s big push for Leland’s promotion (to California Secretary of State) ends abruptly when, at the end of the first act, the politician is found guilty of bribery and corruption (a real-life event) and Larry disappears, either to nurse his grief or elude legal culpability, or perhaps both.
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The rest of the play tracks Lauren’s search for her dad, which involves a journey through tropes of Chinese-American culture, including a chorus of Chinese-American senior citizens (Angela Lin, Daniel Smith and Rammel Chan), a swishy “model“ ancestor come to life (Chan), a Chinese gangster named Shrimp Boy (Smith), a smirky seller of contraband whiskey (Lin) and a long-white-bearded practitioner of Chinese medicine (Chan). And scattered about both acts are duologues between Smith and Lin as Asian-American actors, the most hilarious of which has one (Smith) instructing the other (Lin) in a Chinese accent (essential for auditions).
Many of these riffs and gags would not pass muster in terms of political correctness were they not written and performed by Asian-Americans — rather like Jewish comedians getting away with Jewish jokes that would be offensive if employed by anyone else. (The play references a parallel between the two cultures.) As playwright, Yee seems to have tossed most everything she could think of into a comic stew, and the result is a hodgepodge in which the point of the narrative is rather lost until the end.
While this may be frustrating, and while you may mourn, as I did, the loss of Larry as a pivotal presence, the comic vitality asserted by Lin, Smith and Chan keeps one continuously diverted. Heather Gilbert’s lighting, Mikhail Fiksel’s sound and (most entertaining of all) Mike Tutaj’s projections help make for a festive evening that, despite its circuitous route, ends up touching one’s heart after all.
GO! Kirk Douglas Theater, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City; through Aug. 6. (213) 628-2772, centertheatregroup.org.