July 10, 2017

Review: ‘Kim’s Convenience’ Shares Family Ties, for Better and Worse

Jesse Green / NYT

There are plays you’re supposed to like but don’t, and plays you’re not supposed to like but do. For me, “Kim’s Convenience,” which opened on Wednesday at the Pershing Square Signature Center, is both.

You’re supposed to like the play, about a Toronto variety store run by a family of Korean-Canadians, in part because it would just be darn rude not to. It is, after all, a kind of Pan-American offering, part of a monthlong New York residency by the Soulpepper Theater Company of Toronto.

That residency is well timed. “Come From Away,” the celebrated Newfoundland musical I somehow disliked, has primed the pump here for Canadian theater, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada (a former drama teacher!) has basically set himself up as a shiny alternative to the arts-defunding, immigrant-dispelling Trump agenda.

In a brief post-show greeting, Albert Schultz, Soulpepper’s founding artistic director, slyly acknowledged that northern halo, discerning among the evening’s audience members a bunch of Canadians — they were waving tiny maple leaf flags — and “maybe some who want to be soon.”

You’re also supposed to like “Kim’s Convenience” because it is aggressively designed, by the playwright Ins Choi, to be likable. (It has been a success for Soulpepper since 2012.) In this case, likable means sentimental, familiar and generically feel-good. Mr. Kim (Paul Sun-Hyung Lee) is Appa — “father” in Korean — a gruff, undemonstrative paterfamilias whose struggles as an immigrant and a provider are nevertheless valorized. In this, he may remind you of dozens of characters, from Tevye to Archie Bunker, whose assumptions and worldview are challenged by changing times and freethinking daughters.

Here, the daughter is Janet (Rosie Simon), a thoroughly assimilated second-generation type. Her rebellion takes the form of not yet being married at 30, a crime that sends her otherwise loving Umma (“mom”) into paroxysms of hennishness. To Appa, the larger betrayal is Janet’s choice to “waste” her time as a photographer instead of taking over the business. Now that a budding neighborhood tycoon (Ronnie Rowe Jr., in one of several roles) has offered Appa a large sum to cash out, the future of the store — and of his own story, which is bound up with it — is at risk.

Even if the setup weren’t so rote, Mr. Choi’s script invites déjà vu with dialogue and behavior that work slight variations on hoary comic templates. Appa forces Janet to call 911 when a car — a Japanese car, specifically, because he hates the Japanese — parks in the no-parking zone in front of his store. In a flashback, we learn that in naming the business he and Umma (Jean Yoon) considered options such as “7-Twelve” and “Kim Hortons.” Appa’s thick accent is the butt of many jokes, but so, too, is his racism: He has developed an elaborate taxonomy of likely shoplifters based mostly on color, if secondarily on gender and size.

Such sitcomishness is why, as a theater critic, I shouldn’t like “Kim’s Convenience.” Indeed, the play has been turned without much difficulty into an actual sitcom, whose shiny debut episode on CBC Television last year finds Appa adorably tangled in a gay-discount scheme during Toronto’s Pride Week. A second season of 13 episodes is set to begin airing this fall.

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