Philadelphia Asian Performing Artists presents Mike Lew’s ‘Tiger Style!’

This cat doesn't scratch the surface

Tiger Style! introduces Philadelphia Asian Performing Artists (PAPA) as a producing organization. The company makes a welcome and overdue addition to Philadelphia’s theater landscape. Unfortunately, Mike Lew's comedy, mired in stereotypes, proves a lackluster choice for launching a theater company.

L to R: Anita Holland, Stephanie N. Walters, Daniel Kim, and Richard Chan confront family history. (Photo by Stephanie Price.)

Albert (Richard Chan) a seething millennial, is resentful of older Chinese like Tzi Chuan (Daniel Kim) who quiz him about his background. "Just because you know my race," he snaps, "doesn't mean you know me."

He's passed over for promotion in favor of his white do-nothing colleague Russ the Bus (Arlen Hancock), because his Chinese boss (Kim) finds the slacker more personable. "We should look out for each other," Albert whines hypocritically, to no avail. 

His sister Jenny (Stephanie N. Walters) loses her boyfriend. "You can't dump me," she protests. "I'm a doctor!" Reggie (Hancock), another slacker white guy, says she's "awesome on paper, in person exhausting" as he leaves.

The siblings realize their "tiger parenting" upbringing is to blame. Albert reasons, "Yelling at our parents is the only way we can shed our hangups," and off they go.

Careful what you wish for

Jenny wants an "American rom-com" life, and that's what director Jeff Liu's production provides: a loud, superficial, TV-comedy world. Chan's Albert yells like he's in a theater 10 times larger than the intimate Bluver space, and Walters's Jenny is so bouncing-off-the-furniture hyper that her success as a doctor and concert pianist seems impossible.

Despite their strict upbringing, both talk like mall teens obsessed with hip-hop culture: "What the what?" Jenny squeals, doing those hand signals that all the wannabes copy. "Yo yo yo," indeed.

When their parents — Kim and Anita Holland — calmly explain "all that browbeating stops when you get out of school" and absolve themselves of responsibility for their kids' stagnant lives, the brats resolve to move to China on an "Asian Freedom Tour." This second-act tour is where Tiger Style! really jumps the shark.

The Harvard grads expect to "pick up Chinese primordially" but are quickly overwhelmed. Tzi Chuan shows up, claiming the siblings were "tracked through the network of nosy Chinese."

Albert becomes a government hacker working for — wait for it — General Tso (Kim), and Jenny meets a dragon-lady matchmaker (Holland) who, in any other play, would be condemned as a crude stereotype. Success as immigrants in an alien culture proves more difficult than they imagined.

Style fail

As described, Tiger Style! sounds almost funny, but the production's forced comedy falls flat. Silly sound effects don't help. Neither do non sequiturs such as Jenny's Disney-themed suitcase. Only Kim achieves the tone that could make this thin script work; his delivery, reminiscent of David Letterman's Larry "Bud" Melman, juxtaposes the absurdity that Lew seems to intend instead of stridently amplifying it.

Though these adult-sized children return to the United States having found some perspective and, perhaps, a conscience, their overlong adventure doesn't carry us along. Let's hope that what follows Tiger Style! brings us better, more compelling work from PAPA. 

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