Review: YOUNG AMERICANS Takes a Road Trip at Pittsburgh Public Theater

Running through May 14 at the Pittsburgh Public Theater

By: May. 08, 2023
Review: YOUNG AMERICANS Takes a Road Trip at Pittsburgh Public Theater
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It almost doesn't matter that Lauren Yee's new play Young Americans is great. It is, don't get me wrong, and Desdemona Chiang's direction is nimble and clever to boot. No, I'd be ready to give top marks to almost any play that uses as much David Bowie music, and with such a great song selection, as Yee's new comedy-drama does. Telling the story of two road trips decades apart, Yee shows how the power of family and identity may be strong, but the power of music is just as potent.

Present day: Asian immigrant Joe (Danny Bernardo) is driving his daughter Lucy (Sammy Rat Rios), herself adopted from a different country, from Washington DC to Portland, Oregon. They are following the same road trip Joe took years earlier when he drove his fiancee Jenny (Marielle Young) cross-country on the same route. The show cuts back and forth between the two trips, highlighting Joe's ever-shifting relationship with the two women in his life. Joe is gregarious but awkward, constantly infodumping and prone to playing his mixtapes over and over. Lucy is a typical slightly surly Gen Z type, embarrassed by her extremely nerdy dad. Jenny is a cipher, which both Joe and Lucy struggle to entirely comprehend.

In a very clever coup de theatre, Danny Bernardo and Marielle Young speak in heavily accented, broken English full of malaprops in the present day, but perfect unaccented English in the flashback when they are speaking their native language to each other. (Neither of the two presumably-Asian nations central to the storyline are ever named explicitly: all we know is that they have a somewhat more conservative and patriarchal culture than twenty-first century America does). While present-day Joe struggles to connect with Lucy over a generation gap and a language and cultural barrier, forever annoying her with his slightly oddball use of American idioms, past Joe struggles to connect with Jenny because, as he quickly learns, they are very different people. He's a nerd, plain and simple, and she's a girlboss (though in the year approximately 2000 that word didn't exist yet). She is empowered and assertive, sometimes to the point of bullying, sexually and culturally experienced in a way the sheltered Joe is not, and has very little interest in being a suburban housewife. How will they work things out? Does it matter that we don't see them together in the present-day flashbacks? And what does all this have to do with Lucy's desire to assert her own identity abroad in the nation that gave birth to her?

The three-hander play is capably handled by three extraordinary actors. Danny Bernardo's mix of nerdy enthusiasm and continual flop sweat calls to mind Randall Park's similarly adorkable squirminess; somebody give Bernardo double props for playing Joe's two eras with such distinctly separate body language and vocal inflections. Sammy Rat Rios begins the show seeming as though they have a somewhat thankless role, the perpetual straight man to goofy Dad, but as the show goes on, Rios's grounded and realistic portrayal of a kid barely out of her teens and seeking to understand herself becomes the heart of the piece. And while I stand by my assertion that this is Joe's show, the whole presentation wouldn't work without the masterful work of Marielle Young as Jenny. Her work with Bernardo is fluid, sliding perpetually across a spectrum of affects and elements. Jenny is cold but sometimes warm, standoffish but sometimes open, detached and then suddenly enthusiastic. She is at times deeply unpleasant, then deeply sexy, and then when you think you've understood her, she reveals a new side that softens all her hard edges. It's a tricky character to not make hateful, and Young manages to pull it off. (If the play has a weak point, it's the brief appearances of present-day Jenny as a nomadic, anti-materialistic neo-hippie. Young does great work with this side of the character, but she seems to have so little connective tissue to the deeply materialistic and deeply American character we meet in the rest of the play.)

As these two timelines (and then one that takes place, briefly, between the two) are played out, they take place on a bare stage save for Junghyun Georgia Lee's perpetually-pivoting skeleton of a crappy 2000s car. It's amazing how big the show seems, despite taking place mostly within those claustrophobic confines. Chalk it up to Chiang's direction, or Yee's writing, or the performances. Hell, give credit to the wide range of songs from the 1970s to the 2000s that the mixtapes summon back into being. But at times, this wonderful little dramedy feels as wide open as the road from East to West Coast.


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