The melting pot boils over in the red-hot satire "Ching Chong Chinaman." Lauren Yee's explosive comedy is every bit as politically incorrect as its title in its South Bay premiere at City Lights.

The playwright aims to take away the sting of the 19th-century racial taunt as well as upend as many 21st century Asian-American stereotypes as possible. While Jeffrey Bracco's production lacks enough nuance and subtlety to ground the play's screwball plot, there's no denying the zip and zaniness of the energetic ensemble.

If you are in the mood for a smart and cheeky deconstruction of race in California today, look no further. This audacious satire, which runs through Feb. 24, skewers cliches and bursts taboos from start to finish.

Anthony Chan, Lawrence-Michael C. Arias, Monica Ho, Nick Louie and Chiho Saito in "Ching Chong Chinaman" at San Jose’s City Lights Theatre
Anthony Chan, Lawrence-Michael C. Arias, Monica Ho, Nick Louie and Chiho Saito in "Ching Chong Chinaman" at San Jose's City Lights Theatre Company Photo: Robyn Winslow ( Robyn Winslow )

The Wongs are so ultra-assimilated they don't think of themselves as Chinese. They never eat rice. They don't know chopsticks from Chopin. They can't pronounce Jinqiang (it comes out Ching Chong) to save their lives.

Almost 18, Desdemona (a lively Monica Ho) longs to get into Princeton, but she stinks at calculus. She knows she can't compete in the model minority realm with a mere 4.2 GPA. But she can't bear to lose at anything. She even has to win the school canned food drive. Or else. Unfortunately for all her brainiac tendencies, she just can't beat the curve among nose-to-the-grindstone Palo Alto teens.


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Her little brother Upton (Anthony Chan), on the other hand, can't stop playing World of Warcraft long enough to do his homework. The 15-year-old is determined to make it to the video game world championships in Korea (he's in it for the groupies, naturally), even if it means he never gets offline.

Desperate to fulfill their overachiever destiny, the Wongs hire an indentured servant Jinqiang (Nick Louie) from China so that he can do problem sets while they live the dream.

Mom (a sweet turn by Chiho Saito) and Dad (Lawrence-Michael C. Arias) are also as American as baseball and apple pie. They feel no tug from their history and heritage. They are deeply concerned that their children keep their eyes "nice and wide" open for the annual Christmas photo. Dad lives for golf; Mom yearns for an emotional connection.

Yee ("Crevice," "A Man, His Wife, and His Hat") has an uncanny ear for the way teens speak and think. She nails just how absurd the adult world can seem to those who aren't yet part of it. But she also writes with real tenderness about the compromises of middle age.

The San Francisco playwright also has a flair for irreverence that won't quit.

In "Ching," which debuted at Berkeley's Impact Theatre in 2008, she consistently subverts our expectations, tweaking the narrative to keep us guessing. Irony goes into overdrive when Jinqiang decides to take his own stab at the American dream and the Wongs are forced to examine their own prejudices about who they are and where they are going. Dad purports to believe in manifest destiny, but fate ends up landing his family into some tight corners.

The wonderfully absurd plot is packed with surprises that include an obsession with tap dance, an unexpected quinceanara and a horribly mistreated orphan. She even has the chutzpah to close this loopy adventure with a surprising shift in tone from farce to drama. The narrative is as sly and slippery as cultural identity itself. Yee knows how to mash up the quirky and the conventional with witty results.

One of the least expected, and most delightful, aspects of the show is the bursts of dance, from tap to swing (choreographed by Lori Martinez). Bracco's production has a tendency to drag when the action should be fast and furious, but the dance interludes are always bright and brassy.

Contact Karen D'Souza at 408-271-3772. Read her at www.mercurynews.com/karen-dsouza, follow her at Twitter.com/KarenDSouza4 and like her at Facebook.com/Dsouzatheaterpage.

'Ching CHong Chinaman'

By Lauren Yee
Through: Feb. 24
Where: City Lights Theater Company, 529 S. Second St., San Jose
Running time: 2 hours (one intermission)
Tickets: $17.95-$39.95, 408-295-4200, http://cltc.org