Review: Alliance’s energetic, enjoyable premiere “Tiger Style!” earns its exclamation point

Jon Norman-Schneider (left) and Ruibo Qian play co-dependent siblings. (Photos by Greg Mooney)
Jon Norman-Schneider (left) and Ruibo Qian play codependent siblings. (Photos by Greg Mooney)

The new play Tiger Style! has an exclamation point in its title, and you can take that punctuation as indicative of the show’s energy level. The world premiere play, which runs at the Alliance Theatre through October 18, is a spirited, fast-paced, colorful, funny and entertaining romp that’s as energetic as it is easy to like. 

Tiger Style! gives us the story of third-generation Chinese-American siblings Jennifer (Ruibo Qian) and Albert (Jon Norman-Schneider). They’ve had what they describe as a pretty ungentle, Tiger-parent upbringing; mom and dad guided their kids through whatever means necessary into hard work, high achievement, high status and success. 

Jennifer and Albert may have played Carnegie Hall as young classical music prodigies, but things haven’t worked out particularly well for them as adults. Though Jennifer has become a successful oncologist, she’s hopelessly anti-social in any context outside of work and desperately codependent on her loser boyfriend. 

Though Albert is a skilled computer programmer, he’s also codependent. His desire to please and to blend into the team have resulted in his laboring away quietly as less worthy (and younger) employees get promoted above him. Eventually, the pair identify their upbringing as the source of their problems, and they plan a confrontation with their parents to demand an apology.

Tiger Style! explores family dynamics in a smart, energetic way.
Tiger Style! smartly, and often hilariously, explores family dynamics.

It’s a great set-up for a play, and the fun of the first act derives from the speed and humor with which playwright Mike Lew introduces his characters and their situations. 

Qian and Norman-Schneider are skilled and fittingly speedy and quick-witted comedians. What’s most admirable about their performances is the wide variety of moods and readings they bring to Lew’s snappy lines. Although the surface of the play is colorful, fast-paced and boisterous, they allow a deeper sense of the characters and their troubled worlds to emerge slowly, quietly and subtly. 

Another pleasure of the show is watching the supporting cast of just three actors take on all the remaining roles: It’s a busy show with lots of people in it, and the three actors take clear delight in immersing themselves completely in character parts that often consist of just a few lines. 

One problem with the play is that its quick pace means that the protagonists take on their parents in the middle of Act 1, and the emotional confrontation they have planned is pretty much squashed by the parents’ mature, no-nonsense, uber-sensible smackdown.

It’s a funny scene, but the play has nowhere else to go as a domestic drama, and the end of Act 1 sees the characters resolving to go to China, an interesting and inventive development for Act 2, but one that turns out to bring us into some pretty silly and unbelievable territory. (There were moments so ridiculous in Act 2 that I wondered if we would discover that the events were part of a character’s dream, that someone would wake up and the domestic drama would continue). 

The show’s short attention span is a double-edged sword. It makes the goings-on satisfyingly fast-paced, but we’re also quickly and efficiently swept away from where we feel we should be. Still, the ludicrous, theatrical and outrageous moments of Act 2 become part of the fun, and the show remains at its heart about the universal search for a sense of belonging. 

Many contemporary playwrights delve into this comic mode, but I think Lew has an admirably light touch here that allows him to succeed where others falter. Nothing could come as a bigger surprise since I — along with other critics and viewers — was pretty dissatisfied with Lew’s play Bike America when it premiered at the Alliance in 2013 as the winner of the annual Kendada Graduate Playwriting Competition. 

Tiger Style! does share some of the faults of Bike America — its protagonists can be frustratingly self-absorbed, there’s a level of facetiousness to the goings-on that can cloy rather than amuse, and so on — but it improves on that show immensely; when it works, it works. 

There’s a tenderness and touching humor to the brother-sister relationship and a universality to their desire for frustratingly elusive independence, recognition and happiness. There are elements of genuine connection that were absent from Bike America

The result is pretty strange. I have to identify Bike America as among my least favorite plays I’ve seen at the Alliance, and Tiger Style! as among the most appealing and fun. I liked it a lot, and that in and of itself is surprising enough to merit a giant exclamation point.

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