Before the start of “Kim’s Convenience,” Soulpepper artistic director Arthur Schultz introduced it to the New York audience as “the most successful new Canadian play of the last decade.” The show, a funny but glib comedy about a Korean immigrant family that runs a grocery store in Toronto, has gone on tour throughout Canada, and has been turned into a television series on the Canadian network CBC .
It is now the first show to open in the month-long festival of Canadian theater being marketed as “Soulpepper on 42nd Street.” The Canadian theater company has taken over the Pershing Square Signature Center to present more than a dozen plays, musicals, concerts, cabaret shows and panel discussions to celebrate both its 20th anniversary and Canada’s 150th anniversary.
One can see why Canadians would like this show. It offers many laugh lines, but also (lightly) touches on issues ranging from the universal (the conflict between parents and children) to the national (immigrant identity) to the local (gentrification.) The Kim family is foreign enough to speak at times in Korean, but familiar enough to seem adorable, especially Paul Sun-Hyung Lee in a standout performance as the stubborn and exasperating father, Appa.
But, as much as Americans (and New Yorkers) share many of the same concerns as Canadians (and Torontonians), “Kim’s Convenience” is not in any danger of becomng the most successful play on a New York stage this decade, or this summer.
New York theatergoers have been nurtured on such seminal theater about immigrants as “In the Heights” and “Ragtime” and the numerous plays by David Henry Hwang; outstanding recent plays about immigrants have included “Her Portmanteau,” part of a planned stage epic about a Nigerian-American family; “To The Bone,” about immigrant workers in an upstate poultry plant; “My Manana Comes,” about immigrant workers in an Upper East Side restaurant.
“Kim’s Convenience” by Ins Choi has less in common with any of these authentic-feeling glimpses into the life of new immigrants than it does with “All in the Family,” the 1970s TV series about a argumentative family headed by the loveable bigot Archie Bunker, and with the more recent “Superior Donut,” a comedy by Tracey Letts about a proprietor of a neighborhood donut shop, which has also been made into a television series.
In the single day we spend with Appa in his convenience store, we learn that he is not pleased that his daughter Janet (Rosie Simon) is a photographer, rather than a doctor or a lawyer, but worse than that, that she is 30 and unmarried. Worse, his son Jung (portrayed by the playwright Ins Choi) got into an argument with Appa about the way Appa treated his wife Umma (Jean Young), and Jung ran away from home some 15 years ago. We also see Mr. Lee, a successful black real estate agent, offer to buy Appa’s property; since the area around him is being bought up for condominiums, and a Walmart is setting up shop nearby.
Mr. Lee is played by Ronnie Rowe Jr. who also portrays three other characters, all the visitors to the store. One of them, Appa has determined will shoplift from his store. “He is black guy, jean jacket. That combo is steal combo.” He has learned how to profile (although he does not use that word) and wants to teach this lesson to his daughter. “See that girl? She is no steal. She is fat girl, black. Fat, black girl is no steal. Fat, white guy, that’s steal. If fat guy is black, with brown shoes, that’s no steal. That’s cancel out combo.” After some more such rules, Janet asks him:
“What about a black lesbian with long straight hair and a fat Asian gay man with short hair together? Steal or no steal?”
Appa: That’s impossible
Janet: What’s impossible?
Appa: The gay Asian, fat?
Janet: Appa, there are Asians who are gay, y’know.
Appa: I know, but the gay Asian is never fat, only skinny Asian is the gay. That’s rule.
It should be easy to share a laugh at Appa’s bigoted attitudes, which seem too absurd to be harmful – except that then Appa assaults the customer, twisting his arm until the customer in fact produces from inside his jacket two items that he has indeed shoplifted.
As unsettling as this is, it is even more so when one learns later in the play that Appa was a teacher in Korea, but was forced to become a shopkeeper in Canada because of his inability to master the English language. Would an educated man really hold attitudes that toggle between the comically bizarre and the laughably narrow-minded? Is Mr. Kim a complex man, or a stock character?
By the end of this 85-minute play, almost all the conflicts and tensions are resolved, in ways that are more humorous or sentimental than realistic. You laugh, you smile, you might even sigh, but you leave realizing that the happy endings in “Kim’s Convenience”’ are too convenient to be wholly satisfying.
Written by Ins Choi
Weyni Mengesha, Director
Ken Mackenzie, Set And Costume Designer
Lorenzo Savoini, Lighting Designer
Thomas Ryder Payne, Sound Designer
Kelly Mcevenue, Alexander Coach
Sean Baek, Fight Director
Cast: Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, Appa
Ronnie Rowe Jr., Rich, Mr. Lee, Mike, Alex
Rosie Simon, Janet
Jean Yoon, Umma
Running time: 85 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $20 to $80
Kim’s Convenience is on stage through July 15, 2017.