by Michael Bracken
“You only joke about things that matter,” says Alex (Michelle Heera Kim) to Kate (Jeena Yi) toward the end of Somebody’s Daughter at the McGinn/Cazale Theater. The same might be said of playwright Chisa Hutchinson. Her exhilarating dramedy, a Second Stage Uptown production, takes on racism, sexism, child abuse, and abortion, all with a buoyant sense of humor yet without ever making light of them.
Somebody’s Daughter has it all: crisp comedy, interesting, complex characters, and two parallel plots that are all over each other yet each strong enough to stand on its own. And this production boasts a cast whose members are immersed in their roles with a passion that’s both consuming and nonchalant.
The play begins with Kate Wu, a high energy guidance counselor, meeting with Alex Chan, a low energy but academically stellar female student, to discuss colleges. Both are Asian-American. Kate does virtually all the talking. Her message: There’s a plethora of over-achieving “Chans” out there and Alex needs to distinguish herself by cultivating a sense of humor.
Somebody’s Daughter then follows the individual but often intersecting paths of Kate and Alex. Alex is the unhappy only child in a seemingly modern family with unfortunately dated values when it comes to procreation. Alex’s mother Millie (Vanessa Kai), strict and cold, has had four abortions since bearing Alex, because the fetuses were female. She’s now pregnant with her first boy and intends to see the pregnancy through.
Alex may or may not get a sense of humor, but she gets a boyfriend (Collin Kelly Sordelet) and with him a stronger sense of self. He’s white. She hides his existence from her mother but gets found out. Tension mounts and things get nasty.
Meanwhile, Kate has boyfriend troubles of her own. She lives with Reggie (Rodney Richardson), an African-American, and they seem to be very much the happy couple, until Reggie proposes. Kate becomes unglued – she’s not ready for marriage. Reggie is insulted, thinks she doesn’t love him, and moves out. She spends the rest of the play, when not busy helping Alex, trying to get him back.
Somebody’s Daughter deals in stereotypes without being clichéd or offensive. The Chan family provides two examples: girl fetuses get aborted, while boy babies are eagerly awaited. The pain this causes Alex is palpable, as is the effect on her personality. As Kate points out, she embodies the second cliché, at least initially: the Asian-American super-student, chock full of great grades but not much else.
Kate’s relationship with Reggie is more nuanced. Neither she nor he is blatantly racist. Yet when they have their knock-down drag-out breaking up fight, each reveals racial wounds that have previously remained private, mostly having to do with a real or imagined slight emanating from the other’s family.
Yi is terrific as Kate. Her character loves to wise crack and Kate delivers her punch lines with impeccable precision, as her voice goes up with her eyebrows. She doesn’t miss a beat.
It’s a pleasure to watch Kim’s Alex evolve in the course of the play. She goes from being a wallflower to standing up for herself to claiming her life. As Alex’s mom, Kai pulls off a difficult feat. Millie is not a sympathetic character or a very good mother. Yet for all her faults, when she’s brought down, she elicits an emotion approaching sympathy, even though we know she’s getting her just desserts. Completing the cast is David Shih as Alex’s distant father.
May Adrales’s direction is as sharp as Hutchinson’s dialogue. Lee Savage has designed a set with an overlapping office, bedroom, kitchen, and living room, which are used interchangeably by various combinations of characters. It works beautifully, and Adrales skillfully orchestrates the movement throughout.
Somebody’s Daughter never loses its appeal. It delivers a steady stream of hearty laughs, while at the same time truly engaging the audience on a compelling emotional level.
Through Sunday, June 25, at the McGinn/Cazale Theater (Broadway at 76th Street). www.2ST.com. 2 hours with one intermission.