Autobiographical one-man shows are perhaps the easiest form of theater to produce, and the hardest to do well. It's a genre that requires the performer to have a screwed-up, dysfunctional childhood that can somehow be rendered in an upbeat, jokey way. The challenge, then, is to tell one's story in an un-solipsistic way, and elicit audience sympathy without veering into melodrama. Don Reed walked that fine line in East 14th: Tales of a Reluctant Player, and Joe Orrach came close with In My Corner. Now, Korean-American comedian Kenny Yun has entered the fray with Lettucetown Lies, a play about growing up gay in Salinas, California, at San Francisco's Marsh Theatre. It's a decent, well-crafted show that could become a great show, once Yun matures as an actor.
At present, Yun's childhood is the best thing he has going for him. It's a story that lends itself to the stage: After his family moves to a mostly white neighborhood in Salinas (aka Lettucetown, aka "John Steinbeck territory"), young Kenny had to contend with being both Korean American and gay in an area dominated by white bigots. He cruised around on a skateboard blasting Donna Summers on his headphones, smoked Marlboro Ultra Light 100s, and used his mom's curling iron to mold his hair into something that recalled "Connie Chung with an Adam's Apple." Despite having all the cards stacked against him, Yun tried as best he could in to fit in, acting genuinely surprised when he got picked last for basketball, or accused of walking like a girl. His life became a funny and painful game of deception.
The best thing about Lettucetown Lies is the writing. Yun revels in all the cute, girly details of growing up gay in Hicksville: The Easy-Bake Oven catalog he stowed under his mattress, the disco 45s he bought from an "underground dealer," his crushes on the boy's basketball team, all of whom resembled the Greek God Perseus. Some parts are hilarious, particularly when Yun has to grapple with stereotypes: He responds to one kid's racial slurs with a pretty harsh slur of his own ("Hee haw honky anorexic donkey face") and poked fun at teachers who categorized all Asians as being whizzes in math and science. ("Of course I got good grades in algebra ... by copying off the Chinese kid.") Yun also takes obvious pleasure in imitating the various people who populated his insular world: The English teacher who lectured on iambic pentameter, the fag-hag girlfriend who said "like" about every third word, the enticing but unreadable friend Scotty, with whom he shared many a homoerotic moment.
In fact, the least-developed character in Lettucetown Lies is Yun himself. He has no distinct mannerisms, other than a tendency to overuse his hands (an excess body movement characteristic of fledgling actors). He's overly trusting of a gay camp counselor who becomes an instant spiritual guide. He relies on crude priapic metaphors, and makes continual references to Greek and Korean myths that don't really fit with the story. Eighty minutes with no intermission is quite a long time to spend with a single actor, and you expect to emerge with a very clear sense of that person's story and that person's persona. In this case you get one without the other — a guy with a lot of inner turmoil who seems less charismatic than the people who victimize him. Lettucetown Lies draws back the curtain on Yun's interior world, but doesn't allow much access to Kenny Yun the character.
Meanwhile, another rising comedian will bring his brand of sardonic, self-deprecating humor to San Francisco's Punch Line. Oakland's Moshe Kasher, who left the bay last fall to launch his career in Los Angeles, will return on Tuesday, July 7, for a hometown CD release party. Kasher's new album has a big, clunky mouthful of a title: Everyone You Know Is Going to Die and Then You Are! * Unless You Die First. It's designed as a posthumous release, with Kasher doing bits from the crypt. (Don't worry, he's not actually dead.) Fellow comedians Emily Heller and Eric Cash play his widow and bastard son, respectively; Greg Edwards and Brent Weinbach also make cameos. Like the rest of Kasher's material, it's best characterized as "highbrow concept, lowbrow execution."
Kasher will feature his album guests at the release party, but he promises not to repurpose any CD material during his live sets. That might in fact be the best reason to check out the show. "My thing is that I've always been really reluctant to sell people the set that they've just watched me do at a club," he said. "It's like, 'Thank you for your money, now listen to me do the whole thing again.'" Such forethought is much appreciated.
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