Pawing our way through ‘Tiger Style!’ (Philadelphia Asian Performing Artists)

Let’s hear a big “awwww” for the siblings Albert and Jennifer Chen, young second-generation American Chinese adults from the upper middle-class in California.

The privileged and miserable brother and sister are the main characters of Mike Lew’s frivolous play “Tiger Style!” now in a clownish production from Philadelphia Asian Performing Artists.

Albert could have been a concert cellist, but after Harvard he went into computer programming. He’s just been passed over for a promotion that went, instead, to his moronic, do-nothing colleague. Jennifer was a concert pianist, and threw it all away to become a highly successful clinical oncologist. But she’s unlucky in love, having hooked up with a loser who’s just walked out on her. Why wouldn’t he? Like her brother, Jennifer was raised to work and study and never party, and certainly never to date until she finished her schooling. Her trajectory through life – which she can outline clearly on paper – does not include fun, or possibly love.

Yikes! What to do? Well, there’s only one thing that makes any sense: Blame it in Mom and Dad.

It was Mom and Dad who instilled the play’s definition of Chinese values in these kids: Be humble and don’t brag about your success or talent. (Jennifer never learned that one. She uses “doctor” like a piece of armor.) Honor and respect your elders, no matter what you’re thinking. Know your place in the world order. Excel, excel, excel.

What are these kids to do? Rebellion against your folks never comes too late, it seems, so they arrange for a family dinner. After eating their favorite dishes with their parents (who are an engineer and a chemist), they ask for an apology. Huh? When they fail to get one, they decide to take their rebellion against stereotypes on the road.

They end up in China with no real plan to fight this rebellion, and I won’t go into what happens there. Suffice it to say that “Tiger Style!” – the title refers to Chinese martial arts – is itself not so rebellious after all, with Mom and Dad having the upper-hand all along, the same upper hand that on other arms might have smacked these kids silly.

If Lew’s overwritten play — complete with trite asides and cartoon characters we’re supposed to believe — is a satire, I’m not sure just what it makes fun of. If it’s a look at the frustrations of being pigeon-holed by culture, are we supposed to believe that people should be given demerits for excelling?   If it’s all purely for laughs, it got very few from a full house on opening night Saturday.

That’s partly because director Jeff Liu’s production is misguided in the extreme.  The show has a nifty sound design by Daniel Ison and lighting by Stephanie di Bona. And it has its moments – a particularly well-done scene of character building has Jennifer seeking therapy yet dissing her therapist at every turn. (“You can’t dupe me,” she tells the therapist. “I’m a doctor.” Says the therapist, who has a PhD: “You’re not better than me because you’re a doctor.” “Yes I am!” Jennifer replies.) But many of the other scenes devolve into ranting from Albert or juvie clowning from Jennifer (the hyperactive, hammy Richard Chan and Stephanie N. Walters). An annoyingly overloaded Arlen Hancock further muddies the waters as the lazy colleague who becomes Albert’s boss, but he’s fun when he portrays a U.S. customs agent.

Two actors who play the parents and other roles – Daniel Kim and Anita Holland – save the evening. They give their eight different characters heft and manage to build them fully with little time on stage for each. It feels as if they drifted in from a better show.

“Tiger Style!” is the first full production of Philadelphia Asian Performing Artists, a collective of theater artists that’s made mentoring connections with the region’s professional theaters and hopes to keep Asian American artists working in Philadelphia. Those talents have sorely lacked representation, even in shows with color-blind casting. The good news about “Tiger Style!”: As producers of theater, the collective has nowhere to go but up.

“Tiger Style!” is produced by Philadelphia Asian Performing Artists and runs through Feb. 4 at the Louis Bluver Theater at the Drake, on South Hicks Street. Hicks runs to the side of the Drake Apartments, on Spruce Street between 15th and 16th Streets. Information: papatigerstyle.bpt.me.    

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