Amy Chua’s 2011 memoir “The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” an ode to strict Chinese parenting, proposes childhood as a kind of boot camp. It’s a harsh path to achievement in which the only fiddling around is three hours a day spent practicing violin or cello. In his new comedy “Tiger Style!,” which is receiving its third-ever staging in a production by the Huntington Theatre Company (at the Calderwood Pavilion through Nov. 13), playwright Mike Lew, having himself been reared by parental drill sergeants, looks into — and winks at — the collateral damage.
Albert and Jennifer Chen are Harvard University graduates who have performed at Carnegie Hall. But their lives of rigorous accomplishment have hit shaky ground. Diligent computer programmer Albert has been leapfrogged at work by a loudmouthed, aimless cretin. And Jennifer, a brainy oncologist, is on the rebound from a grossly unworthy boyfriend who finds her too intense. (She also conforms insufficiently to his notion of a Chinese-American woman as something “exotic” but “submissive.”) Outraged by these slights, the siblings, who live together in the house just exited by Jennifer’s boyfriend, decide to blame their parents. According to them, the elder Chens programmed them for Harvard but not for life — or at least not for life as freestanding adults with feet in two cultures.
“Tiger Style!” (which would seem to have little to do with the Wu-Tang Clan rap from which it takes its title) might have made a slick sitcom if the slacker boyfriend had stuck around: sort of a flipped “Three’s Company” rife with jokes and presumptions about Chinese-Americans. But hey, Lew went to Yale University and the Juilliard School so you expect better, right? What you get is a promising comedy that’s half funny and half serious, with some sharp one-liners, a stylish design and an apparently unfixable second-act disconnect.
When the play premiered a year ago at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre, most of the same team was on board: director Moritz von Stuelpnagel, scenic designer Wilson Chin and four out of the five cast members. But despite this psychedelically embellished second chance (the kaleidoscopic projections are by Alex Koch), the play still fails to prepare you for or justify its plunge from pointed, sometimes self-deprecating satire into weird political fantasia.
The curtain goes up as Albert is being interrogated — or “racially profiled,” as he terms it — by a nosy Chinese elder (a symbolic figure who will recur) on a park bench. We then meet “Russ the Bus,” the boorish bro who is Albert’s workplace companion/nemesis, and Reggie, Jennifer’s arrogantly underwhelming boyfriend, who installs radio sound systems. So far, despite some witty dialogue and eye-popping visuals that make the theater piece look less like a sitcom than a fast-moving cartoon, everyone’s either a semi-stereotype or a goon.
So it’s a welcome surprise when the comically agitated siblings, armed with accusations, confront their tiger parents, alternatively described as “tyrants” and “benevolent despots, harnessing our youthful potential.” But Mom and Pop, sipping wine and eating Chinese take-out, prove to be more laid back than adamant. They aren’t having any of their grown-up children’s “weepy-weepy.” Still, as far as they’re concerned, it’s the kids’ turn to fix their own lives, honoring their immigrant past while negotiating a cross-cultural future.
So, what do Albert and Jennifer do? Sounding like they are ordering up omelets, the pair first undertakes a transformation they call going “Full Western.” Albert returns to work with a sloppier demeanor and some ineptly played-out aggression. Jennifer, eager to turn her rigidly exemplary life into “a rom-com,” seeks therapy — but can’t help trumping her therapist with the fact she has more academic degrees and a fatter CV.
Alas, when shedding their polite Chinese skins doesn’t work, Albert and Jennifer instead embark on an “Asian freedom tour” — that is, going “Full Eastern”-- that takes them to China’s Shenzen Special Economic Zone and occupies the bulk of the second act. Is this journey entirely imagined? Is it a satiric fable or perhaps a send-up of Communist China?
Whatever it is, the immigrant/expat pair takes a whirlwind tour of a Chinese manufacturing zone awash in dragons, techno and smoke. Jennifer is sucked into something between arranged marriage and enforced online dating; Albert bluffs his way into a hacking job that finds him caught between two governments. Eventually the siblings find themselves back on American soil, simultaneously decrying prejudice in our supposedly post-racial nation and practically clicking their ruby slippers to the incantation that “there’s no place like home.”
Earlier on, Albert complains to Jennifer: “Look, It’s not like I want to view everything through the context of race, but this is the context that’s shoved upon us before we even get to decide. And yet when people talk about race in this country they only mean black and white issues, so where does that leave us?”
Until it turns silly or surreal, “Tiger Style!” is a quick-witted exploration of that question. And at the Calderwood, under Von Stuelpnagel’s fleet direction, a deft ensemble nimbly juggles cliché as the play both exploits and decries Asian stereotype. Ruibo Qian is an amusingly compulsive Jennifer, Jon Norman Schneider an alternately geeky and angry Albert. Together they deliver skilled physical comedy and nail the bratty sibling dynamic. Frances Jue and Emily Kuroda portray the unflappable parents, among other more farfetched roles. And Bryan T. Donovan amuses as a couple of all-American blockheads.
Lew clearly thinks his farcical trip to an imaginary China culled from a mixture of tradition and propaganda is an essential part of the “Tiger Style!” journey. But I couldn’t fathom what we — or the inexhaustibly educable Chens, for that matter — were meant to take from it.