“Go back where you came from” is heard several times in Mike Lew’s “Tiger Style!,” a tangy 2015 comedy that by Saturday’s opening just happened to land in sync with the week’s headlines over the president’s racist tweets about four freshman congresswomen. The play deals with two overachieving yet unhappy Chinese American siblings, hyper-aware of every expectation and stereotype. Lew’s script is fast, smart and sassy, and the area premiere at the Olney Theatre Center is an exuberant romp.
Director Natsu Onoda Power is one of the most sure-handed stylists in the region, and she teams with set designer Tony Cisek to fashion a strip stage with a gridiron between an audience seated on opposite sides. The yard markers on the “field” also make it look like a pad for keeping score; whatever your competitive metaphor, it works as Lew’s characters banter and jab.
Albert, played with a delightfully malleable range of complaining and distaste by Sean Sekino, is a computer programmer frustrated by his doltish colleagues even as he lets them steal credit for his work. Jennifer, a jangle of precisely articulated anxieties that Regina Aquino delivers with addled zing, is a doctor disdainful of less accomplished people — except, of course, for her horrific boyfriend, a neurotic weak spot that exposes her low self-esteem. Could it be, Albert and Jennifer wonder, that they were raised wrong by their demanding parents?
Kurt Kwan and Eileen Rivera are hilarious as the parents (the straight-talking roles must have been bliss for Lew to write), and of course the kids get no satisfaction blaming their upbringing. Could their discontent stem from the cultural tension of being Chinese and American (whatever those identities really mean)? Would things work better if they just chose one or the other? Entertainingly, Lew has them give it a try.
The comedy gets a rocket boost from the way Lew draws Albert and Jennifer. They are thoroughly recognizable as siblings, able to pounce on each flaw and weakness while hurtling restlessly to the next thing, whether it’s therapy for the too-analytical Jennifer or a trip to Shenzhen for a crash course in overtly controlling politics. With all five actors here —but especially the crisply rallying Sekino and Aquino — you have to marvel at the consistent wit of the performances.
The design panache includes light-box clouds on either end of the playing field, and a laugh-out-loud set transformation that involves the cute miniature suburban American homes lining the gridiron. The simplicity and the thorough reversal of the switch is wonderfully neat theater.
Kwan and Rivera clearly etch their multiple roles as Lew’s shaggy story winds from America to China and back. So does Michael Glenn, who dons a variety of unlikable guises as Albert’s swaggering co-worker, Jennifer’s trashy boyfriend and — best of all — a customs officer whose cross-examining rigmarole, as the siblings return from China, includes one of the “Go back where you came from” utterances. Their forebears came here, and now Jennifer and Albert are from here. It’s a banquet to hear Lew’s characters dissect, for better and for worse, how much all that means.
Tiger Style! by Mike Lew. Directed by Natsu Onoda Power. Costumes, Debra Kim Sivigny; lights, Sarah Tundermann; sound design, Roc Lee. About two hours. Through Aug. 18 at the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd. $54-$74. 301-924-3400 or olneytheatrecenter.org