‘Tiger Style!’: Siblings tilt against stereotypes

Bryan T. Donovan and Jon Norman Schneider in Tiger Style! © Photo: T. Charles Erickson

Bryan T. Donovan and Jon Norman Schneider in Tiger Style! © Photo: T. Charles Erickson

BOSTON – There is a moment in the Huntington Theatre Company’s production of Mike Lew’s very funny “Tiger Style!” that encapsulates the frustrations of many high-achieving people whose social skills and love lives haven’t kept pace in the same way as, say, their academic and professional achievements.

Jennifer Chen (Rubio Qian) is a physician with several degrees who is dumped by a loser boyfriend named Reggie (Bryan T. Donovan), who is upset at her desire for perfection, an area where he falls ingloriously short.

He at first found her “exotic” but not quite (cue another Asian stereotype) “submissive” enough.

“You can’t dump me,” she wails. “I have three degrees.”

But dump her he does, setting off a chain reaction of events that will see Jennifer and brother Albert (Jon Norman Schneider) set off in search of cultural validation and redemption.

Along the way, Lew will use humor to take gentle jabs at both his own ethnicity and the attitudes of others towards Asian-Americans, taking aim at enduring ethnic stereotypes that demand we fit people into very narrow slots.

Both Jennifer and Albert are high-achieving Harvard grads in the 30s – she is an oncologist and he’s a software developer, and she played piano and he the cello at Harvard – but when it comes to their social lives, they have pretty much flatlined.

Albert has had it being passed over for promotions at his California software company for the likes of lazy white slacker Big Russ (another character hilariously portrayed by the aforementioned Donovan), who expects Albert to put his nose to the grindstone to make him look good even after he has climbed over him to get a promotion.

Searching for scapegoats, the Chen siblings decide it all hearkens back to the “tiger style” of parenting, as the siblings finally agree: “Mom and Dad gave us no life skills.”

Albert vows revenge: “I’m going to yell at my parents like a white girl.”

What follows is a confrontation over dinner with their parents (Francis Jue and Emily Kuroda) who are, in a word, unsympathetic to their premise, having provided them the means to get to Harvard and enjoy a comfortable life. 

Jennifer and Albert embark on an Asian Freedom Tour, ridding themselves of the shackles of ethnic stereotypes by going the full monty, quitting their jobs and going “back home” to China, where their relative (Jue again, one of several scenes he steals) makes it his mission to ease their transition to their new lives and show them the ropes of a Communist society.

Then comes the joys of wearing a surgical mask because of the smog and finding out what happens when you run afoul of The Party.

Kuroda scores in a very funny scene as a therapist for the ever-trying-to-excel Jennifer.

Lew, the son of two physicians, and director Moritz von Stuelpnagel, a BU grad, zero in on the stereotypes, cultural conflicts, and the various neuroses of the characters and mine them for all the they’re worth.

As Asian-Americans themselves are an increasing demographic in Massachusetts – they comprised 5.3 percent of the state population according to the 2010 Census, a 47 percent increase in 10 years – Asian-American playwrights and actors are increasingly represented on Boston stages.

Lew’s production joins the ongoing run of Kenneth Lin’s “Warrior Class” — about an up-and-coming Asian-American politician —  at Lyric Stage and a remount of David Henry Hwang’s “Yellow Face” by the fringe group Office of War Information in July.

Welcome. The more voices, the better the mix of viewpoints and opinions represented on the local theater scene.

The Huntington Theatre Company production of Mike Lew’s “Tiger Style!” Directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel. Through Nov. 20 at the Calderwood Pavilion of the Boston Center for the Arts. Huntingtontheatre.org.