AN AMERICAN FAMILY
"Ching Chong Chinamen" by Lauren Yee. Produced by Pan Asian Repertory Theatre at the West End Theater, 263 W. 86 St., NYC.
March 19 - April 11, 2010. Tues. - Sat. 7:30, Sat. and Sun. 3 PM.
Seats: $45-20. Tickets and information at 212-352-3101, 866-811-4111, or http://www.panasianrep.org.
by Glenda Frank
"Ching Chong Chinamen" by Lauren Yee, the current production at Pan Asian Repertory Theatre, is ideal spring fare. It's a clever farce about assimilation, disgruntled teens, an empty nest mom, Princeton, and competitive dancing. It wastes no time getting down to the jokes, absurdities and bizarre nature of life in America, told through the eyes of an Asian-American family. And thanks to the spirited direction by May Adrales, the pace does not slacken. This is one of the best -- and funniest -- productions of the off-off season, a don't miss.
Complications begin early in the Wong family. A stranger is sitting at the kitchen table and he speaks no English. Upton Sinclair Lewis Wong (Jon Norman Schneider) , the son, has imported his own personal indentured servant from China. He was inspired, he tells us, by the 19th century stories of immigration, when the railroads, unable to keep laborers, brought in the Chinese. Upton figures he's doing Jinqiang (James Chen) -- or Ching Chong as the family mispronounces it -- a favor by bringing J. to the land of opportunity. His getting his homework done is a deserved perk. Upton is obsessed with preparing for computer game finals in Korea. He and his sister, Grace (Fay Ann Lee), are so America they can't use chop sticks -- even after J. teaches them. (The scene when Desdemona, the mom, orders Chinese food is hilarious satire -- one that only a Chinese writer could get away with.)
Brother and sister are (comically) abusive in a teen way to anyone who even talks to them. Grace is particularly difficult, pretty and full of attitude. a bundle of nerves. She has applied for early admission to Princeton, but her calculus grades are a problem. She blackmails her brother into her share of J's homework time. Poor J., who calls his mom overseas in her various telephone jobs, confides that the Wong family doesn't even own a rice cooker. Meanwhile he practices his dancing. What does every Chinese boy want to be more than anything else? he asks. To be one of America's top dancers and win the $100,000 prize.
The set by Gian Marco Lo Forte is integral to the comedy. Not only does it offer many small rooms but doors -- large and small -- and windows through which characters appear, sometimes for cameo moments. They read a fortune cookie, call from the doctor's office -- and they spread the interchanges to unexpected areas of the stage. Their inclusion is a real delight. These stock characters are played by the versatile Angela Lin, who looks like an ingénue but has a grab-bag of over-the-top expressions. All the performances are pitch-perfect, including Ron Nakahara as the cool dad and Jennifer Lim as the ditsy mom who finds her heart's desire -- twice. Everyone -- and especially the audience -- gets what they want.
Although you, playwright Lauren Yee can boast an impressive list of awards. She began "Ching Chong Chinaman" as a senior thesis at Yale University. She was determined not to write just another Asian-American play that would have limited production possibilities. So she went for satire. The original Wong family was well-meaning but white. When her advisor playwright Donald Margulies suggested the family be Asian-American without changing the satire, the comedy took on new, unexpected depth and came to life.