Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
So it is for Larry Yee (the ever-amazing Francis Jue), father of Lauren Yee, a successful American playwright, who not only wrote King of the Yees, currently on stage at San Francisco Playhouse, but is also a character in the play, represented on stage by Krystle Piamonte. As pleased as he ought to be with his daughter's successes, dadwhom Lauren lauds as the titular "king of the Yees!"isn't terribly happy about her living in New York and her failure to thus far provide him with grandchildren. As Larry, Jue milks a big laugh with a waver of his hand as if to say "meh" when she mentions graduating from Yale, presumably because it's not Harvard. But Larry manages to turn the tables on his daughter at the end of act one, forcing Lauren to make the effort to reconnect with him.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. As King of the Yees begins, Lauren is on stage, working with Actor 1 (Jomar Tagatac) as Larry Yee and Actor 2 (Rinabeth Apostol), who is playing the role of herself in a play-within-the-play. So we have Krystle Piamonte playing Lauren and Rinabeth Apostol playing the actor playing Lauren, and Francis Jue playing Larry Yee and Jomar Tagatac playing an actor playing Larry Yee. Clear? Good, let's move on.
It's not long before Lauren's (all three Laurensthe playwright and the two actors) play, a "story about dying Chinatown," is interrupted by the entry of her father. Larry Yee is a force of nature, swooping in to the theater to catch a few minutes of rehearsal before his plans to head out and post some more campaign signs for Leland Yee, a San Francisco politician running for secretary of state. (If you know the history of Leland Yee, you've already supplied your own spoiler.) As Larry Yee, Francis Jue is alternately loving, encouraging, dismissive, paternal, bossy, wounded, resilientin short, a character just as real and dimensional as the actual Larry Yee.
"So this is the play?," Papa Yee asks, "So small," adding another not-so-subtle diminution of his daughter's efforts. But Lauren is clearly used to these sorts of backhands, sloughing them off with a practiced ease that illustrates the richness and depth of the father-daughter relationship. When she gets in her own digse.g., "I'm trying to tell the story of two people, and you're trying to make it about everyone else!"her father is significantly less able to take it in stride. When Larry's feelings are hurt, or the world doesn't spin in his favor, Jue seems to be able to make his entire being deflate. It's as if he's been transported to a planet with double the gravity of Earth, and the corners of his mouth are simply unable to resist the force and drop into an open-mouthed frown that is piteousand hystericalto behold.
Though King of the Yees has been previously produced in Seattle, Chicago and Los Angeles, its DNA is thoroughly San Franciscan: it is set in this city, its characters are San Franciscans, and it is filled with so much local color that it's hard to imagine audiences in any other location picking up on all the inside jokes and geographic references. But it is finally here, and the audience on the night I saw the show clearly lapped up the heart and humor of Lauren Yee's love letter to her father, her neighborhood, and her city. Though the narrative is occasionally hard to follow, as Yee takes us on a crazy Chinatown journey, the detours always lead to some new bit of inventive wackiness, including a lion dancer, a chiropractor/herbalist/acupuncturist, a grouchy liquor store clerk who engages with Yee in some spectacular haggling, a trio of "Lum Elders," and an appearance by the "model ancestor," the original Yee patriarch. There are also some inspired bits featuring infamous Chinatown gangster Shrimp Boy (thunder claps each time his name is mentioned, rather like the whinnying horse at the mention of Frau Blucher in the movie Young Frankenstein), and a marvelous segment in which the Lum Elders read cookie fortunes, adding a wry "in bed" to the end of each.
Director Joshua Kahan Brady keeps the pace sprightly, and though King of the Yees doesn't always make sense, if you surrender to the spectacle of it all, you will soon forget any dramatic faults, and find yourself lost in this lovely tale of filial love and responsibility.
King of the Yees, through March 2, 2019, at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street, San Francisco CA. Performances are Tuesday-Thursday and Sunday at 7:00 p.m., Friday-Saturday at 8:00 p.m., with matinees Saturday at 3:00 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are $35-$125, available at www.sfplayhouse.org or by calling the box office at 415-677-9596.