Review: ‘Young Americans’ Tells Immigrant Family’s Story Across Time and Miles

Lauren Yee’s latest arrives at Pittsburgh Public Theater in a collaboration with Portland Theater


The bittersweet road-trip comedy Young Americans has, itself, traveled about 2,500 miles to Pittsburgh Public Theater as it makes its way into the world. In keeping with the metaphor, the new work by Lauren Yee also traverses generations and global themes, using the micro-focus of one family’s individual and shared journeys,. 

Young Americans comes to the Public as a collaboration with Portland Center Stage, where it had its premiere in February and March. Yee’s previous works have made her among the most produced playwrights in America, including Cambodian Rock Band (City Theatre in 2019) and The Great Leap. Her plays tap into her Asian heritage on similar subjects to those mentioned above but using a world stage, such as the tyranny of the Khmer Rouge, or an exhibition basketball game in Beijing.

This new work features an Asian-American perspective with the focus on three people in one family and their personal yet universal immigrant stories, particularly the ideals of legacy and the need for connection when you are “other” in the United States.

Yee’s script stipulates that the characters are immigrants and that the actors should be nonwhite. That their countries of origin are unnamed is purposeful – this could be most any immigrant family in the latter half of the 20th century.

Many who landed on these shores have been caught up in the dichotomy of missing the familiarity and culture of their homelands while also trying to find their places as newly minted Americans. 

The play, 90 minutes with no intermission, is spent in or beside the skeletal representation of a large car, old enough to have a tape deck and a cassette that features NSYNC’s Bye Bye Bye. 

The car’s occupants are Joe and Jenny, an engaged couple who barely know each other, and, 20 years later, Joe and their 21-year-old daughter, Lucy. 

In each era, Joe has surprised the women in his life with a cross-country trip to their home in Portland, Oregon, starting from a Washington, D.C., airport. Jenny steps off a plane to find she is headed to her new life via car, while Lucy returns from a junior year spent abroad to find her father waiting for her, having canceled her connecting flight. 

Joe intends to revel in some nostalgia and re-create the earlier, momentous journey with his daughter.

Played by the indefatigable Danny Bernardo, Joe is an intense planner who has no desire to stray from his own charted path. He starts out knowing where he is headed – on the road, as a husband, as a parent – but very little in his life goes as planned. 

He hadn’t counted on the women beside him – Marielle Young as restless wife-to-be Jenny and Sammy Rat Rios as dutiful daughter Lucy – having plans of their own. Rios’s own synchronous back story includes creating the theme music and original score for the podcast Untitled Dad Project, about “a writer’s quest to reckon with her dad character.”

Danny Bernardo as Joe and Marielle Young as Jenny in Young Americans at Pittsburgh Public Theater’s O’Reilly Theater. (Images: Portland Center Stage)

Bernardo carries much of the weight of Young Americans in a consistently high-energy performance, transforming simply by wearing or removing eyeglasses and a jacket. He often seems like a raw nerve, chattering away as a 20-something adjunct college professor and avid bird-watcher, full of doubts and fears while hoping to impress the woman who has come to a new country to be his wife.

It would seem the only way for this apparently worldly young woman and nerdy professor to click is if opposites attract. We do know pretty quickly that they will get married, as the play toggles back and forth between decades and road trips.

As a doting father, Joe is somewhat more assured, but still a chatterbox, oblivious to his daughter’s own needs and yearnings.

Most of the kinetic action in Young Americans is provided by the car, mounted on a turntable, moving slowly from right to left and back again, to face the audience on the three sides of the O’Reilly Theater’s thrust stage. 

From my view, there was a little too much reliance on this unnatural back-and-forth half-turn, but then, I was facing the stage straight on, and I have motion sickness. In any case, I was glad to see the car in park on occasion, and its occupants getting up to continue their verbal volleys. 

It also took me more than a hot minute to put 1+1 together and realize that the first pair we meet –  Joe and Jenny – are speaking their native language, when what we hear is unaccented English with American idioms. 

Clues are dropped – it becomes clear that Joe is trying to teach Jenny English. And older Joe, in particular, speaks in heavily accented English.

Slowly, as the miles melt away on their treks, we learn more about Jenny’s eagerness to leave home, where her life revolved around her brothers. Jenny enjoys shocking Joe with provocative behavior, in an attempt not just to have some fun herself, but to get Joe to cut loose as well.

Their reactions to each other – Jenny to the straight-laced guy beside her, Joe to Jenny’s flirtatiousness – are some of the funniest moments in the play. 

Together, they wonder, did Joe unwittingly return to his native country looking for a bride? Was their meeting a setup by aunts who arrange such things? Neither quite wants to admit that both may be true.

Little by little, we find – as they do – that their language is one of the few things they have in common. To Joe, a cross-country trip is grounded in places that represent things that speak to him, like the Four Corners Monument — the only place where four states (Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah) meet. Jenny, however, prefers bars to tourist traps. 

Danny Bernardo and Sammy Rat Rios

In a way that Joe could not have anticipated, the trip serves to feed her restless spirit and for him to be reminded that there’s no place like home.

Of the trio, Rios’ Lucy seems to have her act together. She is devoted to her dad, but she’s ready to go on her own journey and not follow the one paved by him.

This trip that Lee takes us on, directed by Desdemona Chiang (Pride and Prejudice at the Public in 2018), runs quite smoothly between eras and miles, even as the relationships hit some insurmountable hurdles. The open car is a cool mechanical feat by scenic designer Junghyun Georgia Lee and production stage manager Taylor K. Meszaros. Costume designer Susan Tsu is a local representative on the creative team.

The device of Joe’s best laid plans having unexpected consequences is the perfect metaphor for the often rocky path of life as an immigrant, a parent, a child.In the case of Young Americans, it isn’t so much the destination that matters, but how three people who care about each other arrived there, and what their experiences taught them along the way.

“Young Americans,” a co-production of Portland Center Stage and Pittsburgh Public Theater, is at the O’Reilly Theater, Downtown, through May 14. Tickets and details: visit https://ppt.org/production/78803/young-americans or call 412-316-1600.

Categories: Our Posts, Reviews

Tags: , , , ,

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: