Ching Chong Chinaman
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 23, 2010
I had a great time at Ching Chong Chinaman. Lauren Yee's comedy has been mounted with affection and high spirits by director May Adrales for Pan Asian Repertory Theatre; the production sports a delightfully imaginative set by Gian Marco Lo Forte, appropriate and often surprising costumes by Kate Mincer, and fun and energetic sound and music design by Robert Murphy. And the six actors—James Chen, Fay Ann Lee, Jennifer Lim, Angela Lin, Ron Nakahara, and Jon Norman Schneider—are terrific, all working in high gear to create as fine an ensemble as you'll see on any stage in New York right now.
Given all of this, I was rooting for the play to feel more satisfying than it ultimately does. Yee is a talented young writer, and the characters she's created here are winning and lovable. But I left the theatre unsure what I was supposed to make of the funny, weird, surreal stew that Yee has mixed up for us.
The play begins by introducing us to a VERY assimilated Chinese American family. Ed, the Dad, has a well-paying job and plays golf. Grace, the Mom, is a bored, dizzy, well-meaning housewife. Desdemona, the older child, is a high-strung over-achiever killing herself to get into Princeton and convinced that she's not unusual enough to make the cut. And Upton (whose full name is Upton Sinclair Lewis Wong) is a 15-year-old addicted to video games who is secretly planning to win a spot at an international competition in Seoul.
Upton has introduced a fifth member to the household, unbeknownst to the others—Jinqiang, a Chinese immigrant who sleeps in the laundry room, is Upton's indentured servant, hired to help him with chores and homework while he practices his gaming technique on his MacBook. Mom and Dad, sitcom-style, blithely accept the servant's presence without asking any questions; clueless Grace mishears his name as "Ching Chong," thus giving the play its provocative title.
Here and throughout Yee does a lovely job balancing completely absurd events within a more-or-less naturalistic framework, in much the same way that good sitcoms and well-constructed farces do; I was happy to accept the many off-kilter and off-the-wall happenings because they feel organic in the world of the piece, which is one where fortune cookies talk out loud and daydreams come to life. So when we discover that Jinqiang is actually here to enter a reality TV dance competition, we're not all that startled; and when he calls his mom in China by dialing the Intel help desk phone number, well, we're not startled at all. Truth can be stranger than fiction.
I don't want to give away the twisty paths that Yee puts her characters on; some of the notions are very funny and some are touching. The troublesome thing is that they fail to add up to much: what Upton and Desdemona finally discover about their parents and themselves may be true but almost nothing in the play prepares us for it. And the journey that Jinqiang takes feels stunted (or, perhaps, too much like a stunt): he's the title character of a play that feels like it wants to tackle the issue of assimilation, but his character doesn't really reveal anything important about him or anyone else.
Yet, James Chen is thoroughly delightful as Jinqiang, especially in scenes where he gets to show off some impressive tap dancing skills (Nancy Lemenager is credited as "tap consultant") and where he discovers that dance is indeed a universal language. Nakahara (Ed), Lee (Grace), Lim (Desdemona), and Schneider (Upton) are all wonderfully convincing as this family that's dysfunctional but somehow functions, with the latter two especially adept at convincingly portraying teenagers. The tour de force performance belongs to Angela Lin, billed as The Chinese Woman but playing in fact something like a dozen characters, including not just Chinese women but, memorably, the poor Korean orphan whom Desdemona has been supporting via mail order and an entirely un-helpful Princeton alum who is supposed to be giving Desdemona pointers for her college application.
The performances—sterling, all of them—are the main takeaway from this intriguing but not-quite-fleshed-out play. Head to Pan Asian Rep to see these extraordinary actors at the top of their game. And Yee's voice is absolutely worth a listen; I will look forward to what she comes up with next.