First, a warning to anyone heading to see “King of the Yees,” Lauren Yee’s enchanting play that is set in modern-day San Francisco’s Chinatown, and traces the transformation in a father-daughter relationship with all the tools of meta-theatrics, identity satire and a test of determination straight out of “Into the Woods.”
‘KING OF THE YEES’
When: Through April 30
Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn
Run time: 2 hours and 10 minutes, with one intermission
Here it is: You will, without any question, fall madly in love with Larry Yee, or more precisely, with Francis Jue, the wiry, wide-eyed, shrewdly comic, comically un-hip and altogether remarkable actor who plays him with such effortless guile. This is the father you have loved with all your heart, as well as the man trapped (for better and for worse) in the thinking of a very different generation. He also just might be the most irresistible old-school style, first-generation American immigrant to arrive on a stage since Leo Rosten’s Hyman Kaplan enrolled in night school (and yes, the Jewish reference is relevant here).
Commissioned by the Goodman Theatre, and now receiving its world premiere here (in association with the Center Theater Group of Los Angeles), Yee’s play is set against the iconic imperial Chinese red doors that serve as the entryway to Yee Fong Toy, an “obsolescent” family association with dwindling membership that stands in the center of San Francisco’s Chinatown. Once the great social hub for the many Chinese men who arrived in this country, without their families, to work on the transcontinental railroad or in the Gold Rush, this distinctive neighborhood is now threatened with gentrification and an increasingly scattered ethnic population whose ties to ancient family roots (and to their own immediate family roots) have grown frayed, at best. And in a real sense, Yee’s play is a playful homage to that history, as well as a clear-eyed appreciation of what has been lost and gained with assimilation.
So just who is Mr. Yee? He is a 60-year-old husband and proud father of playwright Lauren (so ideally portrayed by Stephenie Soohyun Park that you might have to check your program to clarify things). And while he has spent years working for the telephone company, he also has devoted almost all his time and energy as a volunteer for Leland Yee, an on-the-rise local politician who is no relation, but whose name alone inspires an almost irrational loyalty.
Yee, at once savvy and naive, is just deluded enough to see himself as part of the political machine that will keep his heritage alive. This is not so much the case with his 30-year-old daughter, a Yale graduate married to a Jewish attorney who is now preparing to move from her home in New York to Berlin, Germany— even farther away from her dad. Lauren never learned Chinese, has no nostalgia for Chinatown, and is more than a little cynical about her father’s tireless (and wholly unheralded) work for Leland, who is now running for California’s Secretary of State. She is fond of her dad, but can’t really connect with him or his devotion to the Yee name. She also is notably irked by his persistent questions about why she still has no children.
All this is classic generation gap conflict material. But the real Lauren Yee has brought ultra-modern theatrical tricks to her storytelling with the help of designers William Boles (set), Izumi Inaba (costumes), Heather Gilbert (lighting), Mikhail Fiksel (sound) and Mike Tutaj (projections). And the actor playing her father, and the actress playing the writer herself seem so real you forget they are acting. In addition, two other actors (Angela Lin and Daniel Smith) are on hand, ready to play the roles in the “meta” production of Yee’s play that is about to go into rehearsal. Sounds confusing, but Yee (the real-life playwright), and director Joshua Kahan Brody make it all perfectly clear, with the layers of reality and performance expertly (and often comically) interwoven.
The plot twist here concerns what happens on the night Larry Yee has put together a big fundraiser for Leland at a local Chinese restaurant. Disaster strikes, and when Lauren’s father suddenly is nowhere to be found she embarks on a frantic quest to find him that involves the gathering of three symbolic things — a special liquor, oranges and firecrackers. It’s a fairy tale-style pursuit, with the actors, including the deftly changeable Rammel Chan, assuming a slew of different guises along the way. But it puts Lauren in touch with her roots, and finally enables her to unlock the door to her own heart, and to her father’s seemingly antique obsessions.
The whole production also might have been stronger had it been trimmed back to an intermission-less 100 minutes. But then there is Francis Jue. Leaving the theater I couldn’t help but put a twist on that old song by The Bobbettes, “Mr. Lee.” You, too, might find yourself with an unlikely crush, but this time you’ll be singing “Mr. Yee, Mr. Yee, oh Mr. Yee.”