Tiger Style!

(Left to right) Christopher Thomas Pow and Rammel Chan in Mike Lew’s "Tiger Style!at Writers Theatre.

Mike Lew's “Tiger Style!” at Writers Theatre in Glencoe doesn't know whether to be a frenetic farce or a sharp satire. Directed by Brian Balcom and refined by the playwright since its premiere in 2015, the play often is very funny, but some of the acting goes way over the top, turning what could be incisive commentary into a cartoonish hyperactivity.

At the center of the action are 30-something third-generation Chinese  American siblings grappling with the racism and cultural stereotypes they've been confronted with all their lives. Raised to value humility, hard work and collective co-operation, software engineer Albert Chen (Christopher Thomas Pow) is okay with covering for his slacker white co-worker Russ the Bus (Garrett Lutz), that is until their Asian American boss promotes the incompetent Russ over him and, when Albert objects, nonsensically tells him to “go back to where he came from.”

Harvard-educated like Albert, his older sister Jennifer (Aurora Adachi-Winter), who lives with him in Irvine, Calif., is a classic type A overachiever: a noted oncologist and classical pianist who has planned out every detail of her life. Also deeply neurotic, Jennifer is pushed over the edge when she's dumped by the deadbeat white boyfriend Reggie (Lutz again), who she should have kicked out ages ago.

Though they argue about everything, the siblings do agree on who is to blame for their failure to find happiness and a sense of belonging in white American society: their parents. 

So they undertake an “Asian freedom tour” by going “full Western.” This includes reproaching their parents (Rammel Chan, Deanna Myers) and demanding an apology from them, which elicits the opposite of the desired response. Albert also goofs off on his job and yells at his bosses, while Jennifer — in one of the funniest scenes — visits a laid-back therapist (Myers), bringing along all the paperwork that she thinks she'll need to straighten out her romantic life, including her tax returns.

When the “full Western” adoption fails to bring them satisfaction, Albert and Jennifer try the “full Eastern.” They buy one-way tickets and emigrate to Shenzhen, China, even though they don't know the language or anything about the culture. This realization sinks in soon after they arrive, when the euphoria of being welcomed and having everything taken care of gives way to reality. Albert's new job for General Tso (Chan) involves untenable demands, while Jennifer's session with a matchmaker (Myers) shows just what love has (or doesn't have) to do with it.

The gravity of their circumstances peaks with the sacrifice their Chinese cousin Chen (Myers) makes to free them. When the siblings finally return to the U.S., they are reminded by an encounter with an airport  customs officer(Lutz) not only of their grandparents’ plight as laundry workers and farm laborers struggling to lift their families from poverty, but also of their always shaky status in a white society.

For all this, it's not clear what Albert and Jennifer learn, if anything, from their misadventures. Do they still see themselves as others see them or have they been liberated?

Though the staging — clever and colorful scenic design by Lauren M. Nichols, costumes by Christine Pascual, lighting by Lee Fiskness and sound design by Forrest Gregor — is thoroughly engaging and some of the comic bits are very entertaining, I left “Tiger Style!” wanting less shouting and more substantial enlightenment.

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