Arts theater review

Tiger Style follows two siblings as they explore their identites

A raucous comedy that touches upon deep issues of cultural identity

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Jon Norman Schneider and Francis Jue in Tiger Style!
T. Charles Erickson

Tiger Style!
By Mike Lew
Directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel
Starring Jon Norman Schneider, Ruibo Qian, Emily Kuroda, Francis Jue, Bryan Donovan

Huntington Theatre Company
Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA
527 Tremont Street, Boston
Running until Nov. 20th, 2016

The myth of the “tiger mom” took flight in the American imagination with the publication of Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which sparked a nationwide controversy about the merits of Asian versus Western parenting styles. Playwright Mike Lew “felt that it wasn’t being represented [fairly] in the media,” so he decided to write a play about it. He explores not only the myth of tiger parents and the question of what happens after the alleged Carnegie Hall recitals and Ivy League college graduations, but also the identity conundrum that faces Asian-Americans in the 21st century.

Siblings Albert (Jon Norman Schneider) and Jennifer (Ruibo Qian) are third-generation Americans, and yet every day, they are forced to face the fact that those around them do not see them as Americans, either in their personal or their professional lives. When they decide to confront the problem, they find that the problem is not only how others view them, but also how they view themselves.

Albert is a programmer, who has become used to swallowing his emotions as he is continuously passed over for promotion, despite generating all of the company’s software. One day, he comes to work to find that his incompetent, American coworker (Bryan T. Donovan) has been promoted above him. Jennifer is a doctor with a carefully detailed life-plan which has been completely derailed by her breakup with her good-for-nothing American boyfriend (Bryan T. Donovan), who says he thought she would have been “more exotic but at the same time, more submissive” (the reaction of the audience to this line was priceless).

At this point in their lives, the siblings crack. They were so successful in their early life (both attended Harvard, both played recitals at Carnegie Hall), so why were their adult lives such disasters? They weren’t prepared for this. It must be their parents’ fault, they decide, and ready themselves for a confrontation at dinner. The parents, played by Francis Jue and Emily Kuroda (who ironically played the strict Korean mother, Mrs. Kim, in Gilmore Girls), are hilariously unconcerned by the angry, fumbling outbursts of their offspring.

After receiving no sympathy from their parents, they change tactics and decide to go “full Western,” which, for Jennifer, means going to see a therapist and, for Albert, being insubordinate at work. When this approach fails dismally, they swing to the other extreme and “go full Eastern,” in an equally farcical trip to China.

The hilarious one-liners and the pairing of lowbrow and highbrow humor had the audiences in stitches every few minutes. When Albert hears the comment about being Jennifer’s boyfriend expecting her to be exotic, he retorts, “The Chinese-American Ivy Leaguer who went into medicine? You’re the [expletive] vanilla ice cream of Asians.” The comedic timing of the actors is impeccable, and they were often able to extract several consecutive peals of laughter, simply by further manipulating their facial expressions or intonation. On occasion, the roles were a bit over-played, almost forced, and some antics were over-the-top, crossing the fine threshold between wit and slapstick.

This play is a careful balancing act and an exploration. In Lew’s own words, Tiger Style! is “a rumination on: Where are Asian-Americans in this country? After being here for so many generations, how far have we come in terms of race relations?” Lew is drawing upon many of his own experiences as an Asian-American to convey what millions across the nation are experiencing on a daily basis. The challenge is conveying what it feels like to grapple with these societal expectations without getting too preachy or too flippant. Tiger Style!’s combination of whimsy and thematic depth expertly strikes this balance, keeping audience laughing for two hours and musing for two days.