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Tiger Style!
La Jolla Playhouse
Review by Bill Eadie | Season Schedule

Also see David's reviews of The Addams Family and Peerless

Raymond J. Lee and Jackie Chung
Photo by Jim Carmody
Playwright Mike Lew grew up in La Jolla and went to La Jolla High School before heading off to Yale (where he switched majors from pre-med to theatre) and, eventually, to Juilliard. In the process of producing Lew's youthful play Tiger Style!, Shirley Fishman, the La Jolla Playhouse's resident dramaturg, interviewed Mike's parents, both local physicians. His mom's review of the play: "We thought it was hilarious, and it's not about me, thank god."

Perhaps Mr. Lew's mom saw the world premiere production at Alliance Theatre, in Atlanta. The La Jolla Playhouse production seems less than fully coherent. Whether it's about her is an open question.

Tiger Style! chronicles a problem common to millennials and in particular to children of immigrants: the search for identity in a world where they are different and singled out for their difference. Jennifer (Jackie Chung) is a physician who hasn't yet lost a cancer patient she's treated. Albert (Raymond J. Lee) develops medical software and feels like a coding robot. They live together in Irvine, a town noted for hosting entire malls devoted to Asian restaurants and bakeries. Mom (Maryann Hu) and Dad (David Shih) live in San Marino, a wealthy enclave east of downtown Los Angeles, on the border of communities where Asian immigrant groups have gathered.

Jennifer and Albert are both bullied (by Nate Miller, playing both characters), she by her slacker boyfriend and he by a slacker fellow coder. The boyfriend walks out because Jennifer is not submissive enough for him, and the slacker coder is promoted to be Albert's boss.

A dinner table confrontation with Mom and Dad leads to Albert and Jennifer's decision to visit mother China in hopes of finding themselves there. The act two trip is a disaster, to put it mildly, as the two find out quickly how much they stand out among native Chinese, as well as the (more than a little far-fetched) consequences of standing out in a country with heavy authoritarian oversight of its citizens.

The play is a pleasant enough diversion with some good points to make about how Asian Americans are often overlooked as "model minorities" but treated as minorities all the same. But it needs to be played with a light touch and, under Jaime Castañeda's direction, it plods heavy-handedly, especially during what amounts to a fantasy sequence in act two. Mr. Castañeda takes his mainland Chinese villains way too seriously and misses entirely the "Wizard of Oz"-like ending, where despite never being in Kansas it feels good to go back there—even if the Wicked Witch lives there, too.

Based on three other performances that I've seen this year from Raymond J. Lee, he's riding a really long wave with great flair. Unfortunately, he runs into the shore break here. He steps off his surfboard with skill but the flair is gone. The other performers are also skillful but don't make it past the shore break.

The technical side is well up to La Jolla Playhouse standards. The flexible Potiker theatre has been configured sideways to allow for a wide set (by Lauren Helpern) with several playing spaces. David Israel Reynoso's costumes are up to date, and Anthony Jannuzzi's lighting design capably highlights each of the playing areas. Mikhail Fiksel gets the sound design credit but shares the production with DJ Shammy Dee, who is stationed at the top of the set. Mr. Dee's presence as the audience enters is the first sign of trouble: he seems to be a symbol of youth and hipness, but there's no evidence that the hip-hop music he plays is enjoyed by any of the characters in the show. The message, rather, to the mostly white, mostly older audience seems to be "this play is not about you."

Maybe Tiger Style! has a point or two to make. But those points are lost in a production that doesn't get the humor.

Through October 2, 2016, performing daily except Monday with matinees on Saturday and Sunday. For tickets, call (858) 550-1010 or visit

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