Special to Desert Local News by Lisa Lyons, Theatre Critic
California native Lauren Yee is an award-winning playwright with an impressive resume; the 30-something’s work has been rewarded with prestigious awards (including the American Theatre Critics Association’s Francesca Primus Prize), commissions from such esteemed theatre companies as Geffen Playhouse, La Jolla Playhouse, Lincoln Center Theater/LCT3, South Coast Repertory, Portland Center Stage and Trinity Repertory Company and has formed a successful partnership with Chicago’s Goodman Theatre.
Her most recent Goodman production, “King of the Yees” is making its West Coast debut at Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre with the original Chicago cast and director.
It’s a funny, satirical, emotional roller-coaster of a play, part journey of self-discovery, part fantasy exploration of a culture at risk of falling into obsolescence.
Playwright Yee places herself and her father, Lawrence “Larry” Yee as the central characters in the show, and utilizes a variety of theatrical styles from audience participation to slo-mo “Matrix” inspired fight sequences (wonderfully choreographed by Chuck Coyle) and a multi-media depiction of real-life characters like disgraced California State Senator Leland Yee and fictional Chinese Tong mobster “Shrimp Boy.”
It all sounds a bit chaotic and unfocused initially. But during the two hour playing time, the story coalesces into a heartfelt journey of father and daughter who are more alike than either suspects. The scene where they reach across the span of the generation gap, attempting to fill the hole left by Lauren’s lack of connection to her Chinese heritage, had more than a few audiences members genuinely tearing up.
The performances are uniformly strong; Stephenie Soohyun Park captures Lauren’s nervous intelligence and vulnerability beneath the bravado her Yale MFA affords her. Francis Jue charms as father Larry, a former AT&T phone installer turned community activist. His pain at the potential loss of his daughter to her husband and writing career in Berlin is barely concealed behind his glad-handed persona.
As the self-appointed godfather of Chinatown’s Yee dynasty and president of the Yee Fung Toy cultural association, Larry singularly carries the hopes of a waning community on his slender shoulders.
A series of colorful supporting characters are given life by three actors: Actor One Daniel Smith, Actor Two Angela Lin and Actor Three Rammel Chan.They each make the most of their memorable onstage moments showing great range and comic timing.
Director Joshua Kahan Brody, also a Yale MFA grad, has a finely tuned relationship with Yee’s sensibility and brings a delicate touch to what could be merely amusing in another director’s hands.
His excellent technical team includes scenic designer William Boles, costume designer Izumi Inaba, lighting designer Heather Gilbert, sound designer Mikhail Fiksel, and projection design by Mike Tutaj.
Kudos also to the Center Theatre Group for their continued dedication to discovering and nurturing new voices in American theater.
For anyone who longs to reconnect with their family roots and traditions, “King of the Yees” is a satisfying trip of discovery.
The show plays now through August 6 at the Kirk Douglas Theater, 9820 Washington Blvd, Culver City. Tickets can be purchased through the website www.centerthestregroup.org.