Mike Lew has had it with the expectation that Asian-American writers should always be churning out plays directly addressing the Asian-American experience.
So he wrote one.
But “Tiger Style!” is no earnest, kitchen-table drama. It’s a carefully layered comedy about two children of Chinese immigrants who both confront and embrace the stereotypes that are meant to reduce their humanness into shorthand. Though many of the gags are farcical, the humor packs a sting.
Lew is a third-generation Chinese-American from San Diego, but as a young playwright found himself in the familiar box of being expected to pen “identity plays” that foreground his ethnicity. “Tiger Style!” is an identity play seemingly crafted to explode the idea of identity plays.
“This is something I delayed writing for years and years because I was trying to write about anything else. And it kept haunting me,” Lew says. “So I’m only coming at it now when I have the maturity to attack it.”
Lew and director Moritz von Stuelpnagel are seated in a rehearsal green room at Huntington Theatre Company. The two met 13 years ago as fellow interns at Playwrights Horizons in New York and have been frequent collaborators since. Their rapport is immediately apparent.
Von Stuelpnagel, a Boston University graduate and 2015 Tony Award nominee for his direction of the surprise hit comedy “Hand to God,” directed the first production of this play at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre last year. The Huntington run, which begins performances Friday at the Calderwood Pavilion, is just its third full staging. It reunites four of five cast members and two designers from the Alliance production.
Lew is co-director of New York’s Ma-Yi Writers Lab, a collective of Asian-American writers that makes a point of not nudging participants toward plays dealing explicitly with nationality or ethnicity. But in Albert and Jennifer Chen — two Ivy League-educated Californians of Chinese ancestry who are the central duo of “Tiger Style!” — it’s easy to see reflections of Lew and his sister.
The play sprang from Lew’s desire to counter the discussion surrounding Amy Chua’s memoir “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.” Though the book is a sympathetic portrait of a strict parenting style, the term “tiger mother” quickly grew to represent an unflattering caricature of a cold and inflexible approach supposedly taken by Asian and Asian-American parents.
“It’s something I have a lot of personal experience with,” the Yale University-educated Lew says of so-called tiger parenting, cuing laughter from himself and his director, “but I felt that it wasn’t being represented [fairly] in the media. I have a lot of perspective on this, having a lot of expectations placed on me but also being very tight with my family. From there [the play has] really blossomed out into this rumination on: Where are Asian-Americans in this country? After being here for so many generations, how far have we come in terms of race relations?”
In the play, Albert is a software programmer and Jennifer is a doctor. “The Chinese-American Ivy Leaguer who went into medicine? You’re the [expletive] vanilla ice cream of Asians,” Albert tells his sister. In an attempt to shake off the cultural expectations in this country that they inherited at birth, these Californians resolve to go “full Western” and reap the benefits of psychotherapy and being the loudmouth at work. The results are poor. So they head to China on a mission to go “full Eastern.” That, too, fails. Between these two frames, Lew suggests, Americans of Asian ancestry struggle to find and assert their individual identities.
The play itself seems to seek a similar balance. The script notes that four of the five roles should be played by Asians, but productions should feature “[n]o Chinese accents ever. Not ever.” The idea is to let the actors be actors, not “Asian-American actors” — even when playing, say, a Chinese national.
Lew says the conflict at the heart of the play is exemplified in an encounter between the siblings and an American customs agent, which plays almost as farce but is “a little devastating” to watch. This is a particularly good example of the playwright’s overall approach, according to Von Stuelpnagel.
“Mike has a wonderful ability to take the things that are absurd in the world and give us enough perspective to laugh at them. Comedy is significantly underrated in its ability to offer insight simply by pointing out the inherent absurdity or hypocrisy of the world we live in,” he says. “There is something about the mix of highbrow and lowbrow that can crack something open on a gut level — because it’s not just intellectualized ideas.”
The idea is borne out a little later in rehearsal. As Jennifer, actress Ruibo Qian quietly answers a series of demeaning questions posed by the boorish customs agent, played by Bryan T. Donovan, the one new cast member in this production. (Jon Norman Schneider plays Albert.) By reluctantly fulfilling the agent’s expectations of a Chinese woman, Jennifer makes things easier for herself and her brother. Lew sits quietly at his laptop while von Stuelpnagel fine-tunes the exchange.
“Keep holding until your second impulse to say it,” the director instructs Donovan at one point.
“Let’s do the version where we try to get two laughs out of it,” he adds wryly.
The newly inserted pause indeed opens up the exchange to a second guffaw among the cast and crew (and one reporter) in the room. Lew and von Stuelpnagel exchange smiles. The mix — of high and low, East and West — continues to blend together.
Presented by the Huntington Theatre Company. At Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, Oct. 14-Nov. 13. Tickets: Starting at $25, 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.org