Some cakes are just disappointing and better left unmade. Beijing Cake may have once stood a chance but this new show by Rachel Kauder Nalebuff hasn’t got anything interesting or funny to say about American and Chinese cultural exchange. Year of the Horse Theater’s production is awkward, oddly abrasive and generally very uncomfortable for everyone involved.
American diplomat Lori, as disgustingly perky as Meg Ryan in a romantic comedy, arrives job for a new job in China. Lori wants to assimilate into the culture fully. She’s pregnant and decides to give her son a Chinese name, much to the consternation of her Chinese doctor. The actress playing Lori is quite likeable, but her character is insufferable. She’s the archetypal Stupid American Tourist and isn’t treated with any warmth or insight, so we’re left without anyone to care about or root for. Lori starts out endearingly ignorant and selfish and stays that way. By the end of the show, we’re sick to death of her. While the actor playing her young son is excellent at playing children, little Li seemed like he was about four years old, so imagine my shock when it was announced that he was headed off to college. That’s either one very precocious or very immature kid.
The most awkward issue here, however, is Beijing Cake’s casting decisions for the Chinese characters. The show is set in China. Some of the characters, like Lori’s translator and Chairman Mao himself, are meant to be Chinese. Year of the Horse Theater apparently lacks any Chinese actors and instead uses black actors. There’s nothing wrong with equal opportunity casting, but just exchanging one minority for another and then making absolutely no mention of it in the show is uncomfortable, especially when the white American characters are played by white Americans. Beijing Cake might be trying to say something about stereotypes, but just what that might be is never clear. The costuming, (why is everyone wearing matching silk mock-Chinese pantsuits?), doesn’t help and neither does the made-up ‘Chinese’ language used onstage. Less than halfway through, a group of Asian people sitting near me got up and walked out.
For a comedy that’s supposedly about stereotypes, Beijing Cake is chock full of stereotypes that it never bothers to send up, leaving everyone feeling very anxious. This chipper but hopelessly unfunny show seems to have no idea that it’s offensive. Avoid this like a mouldy moon cake and go find one of David Hwang’s confections instead.