The Canadians have invaded New York and established a foothold on 42nd Street. More specifically, Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre Company has taken over the entire Pershing Square Signature Center for the month of July and has brought along seven plays, plus concerts, cabaret and other events to show their mettle. Judging from the two productions I have seen so far, we are the better for it.
Soulpepper led off with what they are billing as “the most successful Canadian play of the last decade,” Ins Choi’s family dramedy about a Korean immigrant family running a convenience store in a gentrifying Toronto neighborhood. Appa (Paul Sun-Hyung Lee) comes across as the Korean-Canadian answer to Archie Bunker. Umma (Jean Hoon), his long-suffering wife, does not get much stage time, which is probably appropriate to her role in the family. Daughter Janet (Rosie Simon) is 30 years old, highly assimilated and single, working as a photographer, but still living at home. Her brother Jung (playwright Choi) ran off with the contents of the family safe when he was 16 after a violent argument with his father that left Jung in the hospital for a few days. There are also four customers all played by Ronnie Rowe Jr.
The early scenes are hilarious, especially one in which Appa tries to teach Janet how to detect a potential thief. His rules have something to offend everyone including blacks, fat people, lesbians and others, but his presentation of them is irresistibly funny. A scene between father and daughter during which she complains over her exploitation and he berates her for ingratitude is quite moving. His failure to interest Janet into taking over the store leads him to be tempted by a lucrative offer to buy out the store. Next we learn that Umma has been secretly meeting her son at her church. Once Jung reappears at the store, you can no doubt figure out the rest.
Lee is a force of nature as Appa. Simon captures all the right notes for the daughter. Hoon, alas, does not have much opportunity to make an impression. Choi is a stronger playwright than actor. Rowe is wonderful in creating four distinct roles.
The set and costumes by Ken MacKenzie create a realistic foundation. Weyni Mingesha directs with assurance.
There are many objective grounds on which I could find fault, but the play overcame them all with its heartwarming, universal look at the immigrant family experience and intergenerational conflicts. The situations occasionally veer close to sitcom humor (indeed, the play has been adapted as a television series) and become predictable, but the execution is so flawless that resistance is futile. I had a good time. Running time: 80 minutes, no intermission.