Sandra Tsing Loh is a popular contributor to several different National Public Radio shows, including appearances on Ira Glass's beloved This American Life. Her essays and stories have gained her much acclaim -- "My Father's Chinese Wives," the first monologue in her show, won a 1995 Pushcart Prize as a short story -- and her novel was praised as one of the 100 Best Books of 1997 by the Los Angeles Times. Anyone reading her output will not be surprised; it's great writing. Her smartly nuanced familial witticisms and her scrupulous "ledger of curses versus blessings" feed into and out of each other and surge with an ironic contemplation that eventually leads her to epiphanies.
Those epiphanies remain in place, but the material, at least as presented here, feels bound to the page. So much keen commentary slips by in performance that you end up with a vague idea that you've missed something. When Loh speaks of her confrontational sister as "a kind of winged vengeance in perfect, beige Anne Klein II leisure wear," the cutting descriptiveness is quotable, but in a piece aiming for a loose theatricality, it plays stiffly. The words are so well-chosen they demand to be read, not re-created.
What's colorful in Loh's writing doesn't breathe on stage; neither, for that matter, does Loh. The night I saw Aliens, I wasn't the only one who was leaning forward, slightly dazed, trying to put myself in the way of her observations in hopes that one or two of them would actually hit me, and could therefore be enjoyed a little longer. She careens headfirst through almost all of her stories, as though, somehow, speed itself were timing. The subtle detail that distinguishes her fine prose is not in her performance. She isn't a particularly strong character actor, and her impersonations of her sister, mother, and father are all less appealing physically than they are verbally. She gets away with some of it, though at best she achieves only "a certain studied poignance," a description, ironically, she's reserved for her father.
Director David Schweizer knows where the material is headed, but clutters the rewards with superfluous physicality. He has Loh moving randomly about Jason Adams' grievously overdone, if well-executed set. Surrounded by walls made of Chinese take-out cartons that are lighted to resemble the American flag, the set's centerpiece is a rotating pagoda-like structure on which Schweizer often sets Loh spinning. It's a distracting attempt to convince us that something is happening outside the realm of Loh's words.
Oh, but the words. Loh dedicates the evening "to all mixed-ethnicity -- i.e. all AMERICAN -- families," and the three pieces that comprise Aliens in America ring with the understanding that the American Dream is a mixed blessing inside most homes. She touchingly explains how a shiny new Buick was the elusive touchstone that brought together the disparate elements that were her stingy Chinese father and flamboyant German mother. After her mother's death, her father places a personal ad in search of a Chinese wife, and Loh relates a humorously painful dinner during which his new bride, "hearty Manchurian builder that she is," resolutely creates a "rope bridge" out of insistent chit-chat. There's also a hilarious evocation of a disastrous family trip through Ethiopia on a bus -- "the one place where adventure and economy meet" -- and an observant account of the humiliations of being 19 and in love with a musician.
A description of a family portrait exemplifies all that is truly fine in Loh's craft. She vividly paints the scene with character and setting, then sums it up as an instant that captures a "mismatched" group of people who are "distracted for a moment by the sheer possibility of their world."
Do yourself a favor: Read the book.