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Theatre in Review: Somebody's Daughter (Second Stage Uptown)

Michelle Heera Kim. Photo: Jeremy Daniel

Chisa Hutchinson's new drama could have been called Three Asian American Women on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown -- and the thing that drives them all crazy is the culture in which they were born. Kate Wu, a high school guidance counselor, is enjoying some quiet time with Reggie Ward, her long-term boyfriend (three years and counting), when he pulls out a diamond ring and proposes. Kate, panicked, brings up all sorts of objections: He wants children; she doesn't. (He's flexible on that point.) She fears she will be expected to take his name -- or, worse, hyphenate it, and she really, really doesn't like the sound of Kate Wu-Ward. Then we get to the nub of the matter: Her parents don't approve of him, presumably because he is black. What should have been a magic moment quickly goes south, as Reggie begins to feel that he is "a prop" and "the ultimate revenge" against Kate's parents, intimating that she chose him not for himself but as an act of rebellion. Before long, Reggie is packing his bags.

Kate is a little rattled because, earlier that day, she met with fifteen-year-old Alex Chan to discuss her college choices. Handing out some blunt truths, Kate counsels Alex that being an Asian American overachiever with a perfect grade point average isn't enough for admission to an Ivy League school -- or, as she puts it, "There are an awful lot of Chans in the applicant pool, if you catch my drift." What Kate doesn't know is that Alex struggles daily to live up to the expectations of her parents. When she announces that she is a National Merit Finalist, her mother, Millie, sniffs, "Think about who the competition is: a bunch of lazy, complacent white kids. The relative few Asians in this country are bound to float to the top. If we were still in China, a national award would be a real honor." Alex's father, Richard, pinches her cheek and says, "Pretty and smart. You're going to give some guy a run for his money, aren't you?" Tired of being alternately abused and patronized, Alex blurts out to Kate, "I think I want to kill myself."

Living with Millie would, arguably, drive anyone to suicidal thoughts. Intended as a prime example of the so-called tiger mother, she is a true graduate of the Joan Crawford School of Parenting. In addition to withholding affection, Millie is also abusive, announcing that she has removed all snack foods from the house because, she tells Alex, "They're making you fat. Fat and lazy and greasy." And when Alex has really difficult news to impart, Millie isn't above giving her daughter a beauty of a shiner. We're supposed to feel for Millie because Richard, a traditional Chinese husband, treats her as little more than a baby-making machine. Alex, being a girl, was a disappointment, but at least she was allowed to live; three subsequent pregnancies -- all girls -- were terminated. Millie is pregnant again, for all the good it does her; when she reaches out for Richard in bed, he merely tells her to lie down on her left side. "Better for the baby," he instructs her.

There is a solid foundation for a play here, but Hutchinson has plenty of trouble building on it. She aims for a bright, wisecracking style that, all too often, is cringeworthy. Kate, going over Alex's record, says, "An Asian chick who doesn't play an instrument, right? It's like a lion that doesn't eat meat. Friggin' vegan tiger or something." Reggie, a struggling writer who lands a contract for a book about spelunking, amuses himself with possible titles: The Many Orifices of Mother Earth, or You Don't Have to Get Her Drunk to Probe 'em. We're supposed to be amused when the China-born Millie, picking up a bit of American English vernacular, starts referring to Alex as "you little shit." When Kate tells the supremely uptight Alex, "You gotta work on your sense of humor," I wanted to say, Honey, you're not the only one.

These lame attempts at wit prevent one from caring about the characters, who are perilously thin and often all too easy to dislike and dismiss. Kate is clueless in her personal life and unprofessional on the job. Alex's admission of suicidal thoughts should trigger a range of responses, including evaluation by a psychologist; all Kate does is to offer her a card, with her cellphone number written on it. Despite the playwright's efforts at drumming up sympathy for her, Millie is an unalloyed monster; even after she assaults Alex, her main worry is what the neighbors will think. (When Alex brings up those three abortions, Millie spits out, "It should have been four.") She may be the lead character, but Alex is a largely reactive figure, too timid to express her feelings. The male characters are all one-note creations, with the exception of Reggie, who, in the play's best scene, quietly, patiently explains to Kate that she is -- however unconsciously -- a racist.

May Adrales' direction doesn't ameliorate these flaws, and, in some instances, may aggravate them. Jeena Yi tries to adopt a breezy manner as Kate, but the results are strident and unamusing. Vanessa Kai's Millie is transparently villainous in her scenes with Alex and a doormat when alone with Richard; the actress never manages to reconcile the two sides of her character. Collin Kelly-Sordelet brings some much-needed charm to Russ, Alex's boyfriend, who unwittingly puts her on the road to disaster. As Richard, a businessman with little time for his wife and daughter, David Shih doesn't have much to do. The standouts are Michelle Heera Kim, as the painfully shy Alex, who blossoms under the attentions of Russ and shows some tiger claws of her own when facing Millie down, and Rodney Richardson as Reggie, who is sufficiently appealing that Kate seems crazy for running away from him.

Lee Savage's multilevel set facilitates the play's flow, removing any unwanted pauses between scenes. Sara Ryung Clement's costumes and Seth Reiser's lighting are both fine. Kate Marvin's original music and sound design combine nervous string arrangements and electronic sounds with such effects as music from a car radio, phone calls, whistling teakettles, and a crying baby.

Near the end of Somebody's Daughter there are signs that Alex is finally taking control of her life, but Hutchinson's writing is marked by a certain callowness as well as a lack of empathy and understanding that is off-putting. As the play wears on, the crises facing this trio of women hardly seem to matter. -- David Barbour

(12 June 2017)

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