Chantelle Han, Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, Jane Luk, and Ins Choi as the Kim family. (Photo by Bruce Monk)
"Kim's Convenience" is a poorly constructed play that could be so much more. It features little action, almost no conflict, and very little story. It sails along on broad comedy and one-liners that don't add up to much. Still, it was a big hit at Toronto's acclaimed Soulpepper Theatre and is now crossing Canada on a nine-city tour. It has just landed at the Arts Club on Granville Island.
The story follows a Korean-Canadian family that owns a corner store in the Toronto neighbourhood of Regent's Park, a neighbourhood in the midst of gentrification. Appa, played well by Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, is the store's middle-aged owner. He receives an offer to buy his store as the play begins. He shows the offer to his wife, Umma (Jane Luk), who says it's enough to retire on.
They are both astonished at the size of the offer. How could this be the first time they realize how much their store is worth? Don't they pay taxes on it? Questions like this abound in Kim's Convenience. Their daughter Janet (Chantelle Han) is a photographer with no interest in the family business, and their estranged son Jung (Ins Choi, also the playwright) disappeared 16 years earlier.
Acting is generally good in roles that are not all that challenging. Umma, Janet and Jung require only thin, unobtrusive performances. Lee, as Appa, has the largest role and plays broad comedy and melodrama equally well. He has a powerful stage presence and is the real strength of this production. Where the script is confusing and free of dramatic tension, he entertains by clowning. Not an easy task. When he has to be serious, he is present in the moment. It would be interesting to see him tackle a role like Falstaff, Willy Loman, or Tartuffe.
The beautiful set (by Ken MacKenzie), is a colourful rendering of a corner store's interior. The decoration is exact right down to the bags of chips in one display case, and a variety of chocolate bars in front of the cashier. A Korean flag is tacked to the wall behind the counter beside a Canadian flag the same size. A homemade sign promises two packs of cigarettes for $18.99.
In one piece of eccentric information, Appa explains to his daughter that keeping cigarette prices low reduces overall shoplifting. At the end of the performance some audience members stopped at the front of the stage to admire MacKenzie's work.
The story of "Kim's Convenience" is weak. Appa doesn't want to sell the store, so that's that. Any potential story around whether or not he will sell is quickly extinguished.
The bulk of "Kim's Convenience" features Appa's eccentric and humorous opinions (his speech about how to recognize a shoplifter) and the joke of his heavily accented English. It is easy comedy and carries the play nowhere. Appa uses his martial arts training to torture a potential boyfriend into proposing marriage to his daughter, Janet. He forces them to kiss and gets angry when they kiss too much. This is supposed to be hilarious. Playwright Ins Choi uses Appa's Korean accent for too many jokes. Why ridicule someone who speaks English with an accent? Such comedy is dated and a bit offensive.
Though no plot ever develops, the play's inevitable conclusion is telegraphed after about 20 minutes. You see, Appa wants his daughter Janet to take over the store when he retires, but she refuses. It turns out Janet's brother Jung disappeared 16 years earlier after Appa beat him so severely he ended up in hospital but, conveniently, Jung occasionally visits his mother at church.
Anyone who has glanced at the house program knows that Jung, played by the playwright himself, will make an appearance. Guaranteed. The single day during which the entire action of this play occurs is a Sunday, Umma's church day. Jung comes to church occasionally, and Appa needs a family member to take over the family store. If you can't see the ending by now, you're not paying attention.
The lack of plot and preposterous ending are not so much weaknesses of the text as they are weaknesses of the process that brought this play to Toronto's Soulpepper stage. Albert Schultz, artistic director of Soulpepper and "remount" director of this production, knows more about story structure than this play displays. Surely he and the Soulpepper artistic team know "Kim's Convenience" still needs a lot of work. It's not possible to know why they green-lighted this work-in-progress, but they did a disservice to the young playwright by allowing it on stage at this stage of development.