Photo by Greg Mooney
Photo by Greg Mooney

By Manning Harris

In 2013, playwright Mike Lew won the Alliance/Kendeda National Graduate Playwriting Competition with his charming “Bike America.” It was given a flawless performance on the Alliance Theatre’s intimate Hertz Stage; if you saw it, you’ll remember the actors delivering most of their lines while jogging behind handlebars. It was funny and provocative, and it worked extremely well.

Now the Alliance is giving Mr. Lew a world premiere staging of his new play, “Tiger Style!”, running through Oct. 18. It concerns two grown siblings, Albert and Jennifer Chen, both very successful professionally; but they both blame the “Asian tiger parenting” they experienced on their not-so-successful personal lives. You’ve heard of “helicopter parents” (I can promise you teachers are familiar with the term) who push and micro-manage every phase of their child’s schooling and development. They’ve been known to threaten their children’s teachers with legal action if they don’t get all A’s.

Jennifer and Albert refuse to be labeled as victims, says Director Moritz Von Stuelpnagle, and instead overcompensate in often clumsy ways to achieve “rom-com” (romantic comedy) American status. Albert (Jon Norman Schneider) says “I’ve been to the nerd mountain top,” and it’s not working.

He has a high paying job as a computer expert but sees a promotion going to a lazy lunkhead named “Russ the Bus” (Bobby Labartino). Albert is furious.

His sister Jennifer (Ruibo Qian) is even more furious: She’s a doctor, for heaven’s sake, makes tons of money, but her boyfriend has just had the temerity to walk out on her. He tells her she’s just too intense.

So the siblings confer with each other and decide it’s time to meet with the parents (Francis Jue and Emily Kuroda) for a satisfying version of the blame game.

But the parents aren’t buying it. They’re not called tiger parents for nothing, and they are no pushovers. The grown-up kids “can’t get no satisfaction,” to borrow from the Rolling Stones, and decide the real solution will be found in the Asian freedom tour—a trip to China. Unfortunately, this is where the play gets top-heavy.

Before that, however, we have what is possibly the play’s funniest, most revealing scene: Jennifer visits a therapist. I won’t tell you the specifics, but when the psychologist asks Jennifer if she’s happy, she replies, “I don’t know what that means!”

I neglected to mention that the parents insisted the kids take music lessons: Albert, cello; Jennifer, piano. They became concert-quality musicians, but they seem to resent their expertise—that is, until they’re in China, and neither speaks Chinese.

Actors Jue, Kuroda, and Labartino play multiple roles, superbly. And the opening scene between siblings Qian and Schneider is played nimbly and with fine comic sense.

Playwright Lew says in the program that he’s keenly aware of the honor and opportunity that Alliance Artistic Director Susan Booth and Director of New Projects Celise Kalke have bestowed on him with this production because “doing ‘Tiger Style!’ on the Alliance’s mainstage is virtually unheard of for a world premiere play by a relatively unknown writer.”

But for this viewer, however, it’s too soon. The piece does not gel satisfactorily with theatrical cohesiveness; in other words, it lacks punch. I think it would have worked better in the smaller Hertz space; and some more tweaking is called for. It’s rather puzzling because the acting is fine and the writing is often very funny. But the Alliance mainstage is a mighty space to conquer.

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Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.