How could a play that’s so rollickingly funny and sharply satirical suddenly go so meh?
That’s the question that bubbled up at the end of “Hot Asian Doctor Husband,” playwright Leah Nanako Winkler’s romantic comedy that had its buzzy premiere over the weekend at Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis.
Produced under the aegis of Theater Mu and pointedly directed by Seonjae Kim, “Hot Asian Doc” teems with profane, deadpan wit. Playwright Winkler, a writer on the TV show “New Amsterdam,” is an incisive observer of cultural trends, and she packs a lot of insights into this show that gets notable performances from a highly effective cast.
But the writing gets lost at the end of this one-act as the comic narrative radically shifts focus and tone. What starts out as an arrestingly funny romcom resolves itself as an earnest Japanese folk tale.
It’s as if playwright Winkler was having the same doubts and questions about cultural authenticity as her lead character, Emi (Meghan Kreidler). Born to an Asian mother and a white father who abandoned the family, Emi is thrown into crisis by the death of her mother.
She wants to have a baby, which brings up all kinds of questions about heritage.
Emi has been dating Collin (Damian Leverett in an understated and corny turn) for 3 ½ years.
Like most of her boyfriends, he’s white.
But now Emi wants to, in her words, “decolonize my vagina,” which means a breakup with Collin. She seeks out the title character (Eric Sharp, and is he ever).
Hot Asian Doc has a name, and a surprisingly milquetoast one at that, but he’s happy to be nameless — to let Emi and all the others project whatever fantasies they have about him.
And while he’s married, he’s happy to have Emi as his latest sidepiece.
The play makes excellent points about marriage and dating, about desire and love, and about culture. “Hot Asian Doc” lands at a time when films such as “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Always Be My Maybe” are redefining the tropes that surround Asian-American characters — on stage and screen.
Emi’s questions around being authentic have added edge because the character makes assumptions about what it means to be Asian-American that prove to be just as problematic as the fetishistic ones made by some of her exes.
What is new in this play is that Hot Asian Doc, the character, is not some neutered, asexual figure but a confident, throbbing bad boy.
And, confident and preening, Sharp plays it to the hilt, doing a dance number that’s as memorable as the splashy scene in “Flashdance,” sans water.
Sharp’s Hot Asian Doc is the title star of the show, but the show is not about him. It’s more about parental dreams, grief and the things we carry in our subconscious.
And Kreidler embodies all that confusion with an emotional range that goes from rage and ferocity to tender vulnerability. Her Emi is caught in the crosscurrents of culture, being tossed like a sea lion in the waves. When she comes up for air, it’s just long enough for some other force to build and knock her off her game.
“Hot Asian Doc” takes place on an efficiently suggestive set by Sarah Brandner, which includes a modular bed, plus chairs and small table for a bar area, all evocatively lit by Karin Olson.
The cast includes butter-smooth Mikell Sapp, who plays Leonard, an actor and Emi’s platonic best friend; Danielle Troiano as Veronica, Leonard’s girlfriend who he does not introduce to his friends; Maekalah Ratsabout as a little girl; and steady pro Sun Mee Chomet, who gives hysterical and funny voice to Hot Asian Doc’s angry wife.
This cast gives us characters struggling to find love, authenticity and light in a world of delightful Asian fusion and confusion.