Missing Dad

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

There is a lot, and I mean a lot, to Lauren Yee's play The King of the Yees, so let's start simply. On one level, it's a play about a red door.

That door is center stage as the play begins. Standing in front of it are Lauren Yee and her dad Larry Yee. Together they explain that this door is in San Francisco's Chinatown and it's the entry to Yee Fung Toy which, as you'll learn in the play, is a sort of family association for everyone named Yee. Imagine if there was a social club for folks with your last name, sort of a family name booster club? Now imagine that your dad was the grand poobah for this group and you didn't get it and found it sort of antiquated and weird. That's where Lauren Yee, both the character and the playwright, begins the story.

The play could be read as the playwright's journey to unlock that door and everything it symbolizes: her dad, her culture, her identity, her rapidly changing Chinatown. The King of the Yees wants to be about a daughter connecting with her father before it's too late ...but that story almost instantly gets hijacked by another pair of Yees.

Moments after the first Lauren Yee and dad Larry Yee take the stage a second Larry Yee wanders onstage quickly followed by another Lauren Yee from the audience. We learn the first Yees were just actors in Lauren's play and these are the real Yees.

It's a clever meta-theatrical conceit that quickly points out how weird and artificial it is to put one's real life onstage -- imagine hiring an actor to play your dad in front of your dad? At first this bit of irreverence is fun. We get a story inside a story: the story of the actors playing the people and those people. But Ms. Yee doesn't stop there. Before long we have a story line about the politician Leland Yee, then a subplot about Shrimpboy and the next thing you know we're in between a slow-motion Matrix-style gun battle and a dance off with a Tiger. I'm not kidding. It gets really weird.

Now, there's something that's fun and joyous about this carnival ride of a plot. It gives the actors some wonderful comic turns, there's some inventive staging and it provides fertile ground to unearth all the Asian stereotypes -- and there are quite a few. I'll leave it to you to decide whether Ms. Yee is exploding these stereotypes or exploiting them but her intent seems to be to try and do battle with them.

The challenge is somewhere on the way to trying to find her dad -- we, the audience, sort of lose him amidst of all these theatrics. The Larry Yee we're introduced to at the top of the play doesn't feel like some inaccessible old man. He's actually outgoing and fascinating. Ironically, with all the drama of trying to find him, Ms. Yee has actually pushed him away from us.

As the two hour play approaches its end and Ms. Yee has exhausted all the subplots, we finally get to sit down with Mr. Yee and it's fascinating and moving...  but it feels like too little, too late.

The King of the Yees plays at the Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City through August 6.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Running Time: 2 hours with one intermission

Photo: (L-R) Stephenie Soohyun Park and Angela Lin in the world premiere production of King of the Yees. (Craig Schwartz)