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'Ching Chong Chinaman' Laughs at Cultural Stereotypes

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Assimilated Asian-Americans try to play chopsticks in Artists at Play's "Ching Chong Chinaman" (Photo: Michael C. Palma)
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At the very beginning of Lauren Yee's riotous farce "Ching Chong Chinaman," as the uber-assimilated Wong family poses for its annual Christmas card photo, the father instructs his wife and children to open their eyes "nice and wide." In the next scene, each parent enters the kitchen without recognizing that the teenage boy at the table is someone other than their own son. Turns out his name is Jinqiang or, as best as the Wongs can figure out how to pronounce it, "Ching Chong."

And that's all just in the first few minutes.

The sanctity of American, primarily though not exclusively Asian-American, cultural identities is skewered in this first production by the new LA theater group Artists at Play. The Wongs are a teeming cauldron of dysfunction: impotent father Ed (Ken Narasaki) ignores his wife Grace (Helen H. Ota)'s restless dissatisfaction; their son Upton Sinclair Lewis Wong (Scott Keiji Takeda) is too obsessed with World of Warcraft to devote his attention to anything else at all; and their daughter Desdemona (Julia Cho) is so desperate to get into Princeton--which she believes is the key to being an "interesting, worthwhile person"--that she wishes she belonged to a more disadvantaged minority group. Then, the sudden arrival of a non-English-speaking Chinese refugee (Steve Hu) in their household challenges all of the family's assumptions about themselves.

As "Ching Chong Chinaman" winds its way through unexpected character developments, plot twists and even dance routines, the barrage of laugh lines are more hit than miss, although the evening does threaten to spiral out of control towards the end. Fortunately, Cho as the teenage daughter displays such a wonderfully offbeat comic timing, perfectly attuned to the antic vagaries of Yee's play, that it all stays engaging. The rest of the cast is strong, too, including Elizabeth Ho in an array of secondary character roles.

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"Ching Chong Chinaman," directed by Peter J. Kuo, runs through November 27, with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 3pm and an additional Sunday evening performance at 7pm on November 20. Tickets cost $21.69 ($16.52 for students).