Charmingly reactionary, “Fancy Chinese Restaurant” seeks to subvert the myriad cliches of Chinese-Americana. When it lays it on thick enough, Fei Liu’s ’03 play shines with humor and biting wit. The only problem is that it doesn’t always pull the straightest punches, especially when it tries for profundity. As a play built on reaction, it should demonstrate the error of the cliche with solemn certainty or mocking humor. Unfortunately, as a confusing mixture of sensitivity and skillful black humor — in which each detracts rather than contributing to the other — “Fancy Chinese Restaurant” is lacking one thing — a choice between the two.

A prologue portraying the stumbling romance of a pair of Chinese teenagers — he loves her tiny pink satin shoes, she wonders why he wears pants with a green-buttoned fly — introduces the two main actors. Seemingly unconnected to the first moments, the rest of the play indicates that the bashful lovers are the parents of the protagonist, Cindy Hwang (Xiaoning Wu ’04).

As one might suspect from the title, the action is set in a Chinese restaurant, with the stage carefully dressed with all the necessary indicators — calendars, a gong and all things red. Separated in the middle by a free-standing doorway, the right half — the kitchen — introduces the audience to Cindy, as well as Laverne Hawksbury-Hwang (Emily Breunig ’04), who at first appears to be a waitress, but is soon revealed to be Larry Hwang’s (Keane Shum ’05) new wife. Laverne is very well played by Breunig, whose young blond body soon morphs into that of a world-weary 40-something whose life is not what she had imagined it would be. On the other side of that doorway is her husband, Larry Hwang, fervently acted by Shum, and the dishwasher, Mr. Dishwasher, played by Will Reid ’04. Shum is always earnest, which one wouldn’t think works for an old man with a strong-minded twenty-year-old and dissatisfied wife #2, but it does, and Reid is loud. Very loud. His Mr. Dishwasher is a career dishwasher, with “39 fooking years” under his belt and a strong allegiance to the first Mrs. Hwang, Cindy’s mother, who was sent back to China by Larry. Mr. Dishwasher, told that he was “yellow on the inside,” is apparently from some European country, though which one exactly is unclear. Reid’s confused accent, bellowed into the crowd, does not divulge that particular secret. Nor is the exact origin of his devotion to Mrs. Hwang #1, whose braid of black hair he keeps next to his heart, shampoos and oils weekly, and keeps for Cindy until the time is ripe to present it to her. Why? We don’t know, exactly.

Telling tales of the luck Mrs. Hwang (the first one, who was eventually sent back to China by Mr. Hwang) felt at finding herself in America, Cindy and her stepmom bond on one side of the first scene, while Larry tells Mr. D. all about his own experiences in China on the other — both just the kind of shockingly sad things one might gasp at in “The Joy Luck Club.” It is an odd setup, but one that makes sense as these characters weave in and out of each other’s lives in the midst of the restaurant that we see dominates their lives — as well as the life of a certain American sleazebag, a Mr. Eddie Bauer (Nick Evans ’05). An heir from Michigan, he wears an “I’m Getting a Woody” T-shirt and carefully studies his favorite porno mag, “Asia 18” while flirting with Cindy, his waitress. Eddie is skillfully played by Evans, who knows just the right amount of perversion to slip into his character’s send-up of Boorish Guy with Asian Fetish, one who also happens to be rather cruelly deceptive and vulgar. Eddie’s costumes, an admirable collection of obscene t-shirts, add to his appeal.

Perhaps the most successful moment of director Matt Johnson’s ’03 production is the red light-drenched stage that shows Eddie sprawled at a chair in the restaurant, and which welcomes the suddenly sultry Cindy dressed in patent leather and armed with a whip, a whip used only after she has pushed Eddie to the floor. Although he declares that he doesn’t have an Asian fetish, only a “you fetish,” she strikes him with it as she cries, “I cast from you the Asian fetish!” It is a funny and harsh moment, one more brutally true than the strange relationship between the white-bread Laverne and her American ideas of child-rearing and the more traditional but constantly compromising Larry Hwang. The remarriage of the Chinese restaurateur is a change from more expected faithful old Chinese couples, and helps illuminate cultural differences, but it is one of those aspects that makes the play waver. A solemn and kind of sweet statement that things are different, it does not complement the sting of the whip.

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