The two kids blowing stuff up at the Kitchen Theatre are Korean-American Max and Chinese-American Di, contemporary inhabitants of the NYC urban area, and playwright Carla Ching follows their lives from age 9 to 38.
In this “play about falling in and out of love with your best friend” (New Play Exchange) Ching constantly shuffles her chronology; after briefly opening “now” (age 38), we flash back to age 9, as the two kids build snow people outside as his mom and her dad conduct an affair at Di’s house; then flash forward to age 24 and convos about each other’s love life over a bowl at Noodletown; then back to age 15, etc.
Ching writes sharp, observant scenes that often crackle with wit. For the first half of the play this back and forth rhythm plays. The young Di and Max are super-smart, funny, sarcastic, alternately wide open and sensitive to slights. Max, science (and explosion) obsessed is a combo of ultra-nerd and anarchist, Di the profane rebel and proto-artist. As twenty-somethings we note traces of these exuberant, ready for life kids adapting to adulthood, hitting the pavement of jobs, relationships and choices.
There is also a lovely richness in the ethnicity, which both matters a lot and very little to these moderns: the aunties who come to Las Vegas so much they have free rooms, being pushed to learn Chinese, parental expectations.
The play bogs down in its second half as Ching abandons the simple back-and-forth and begins jumping around their 30s; scenes crammed with incidents and off—stage characters; what was illuminating structurally becomes confusing, as the audience struggles to remember which incident preceded—or followed which.
There are simply more scenes than necessary, as Ching seems to lose her original intention.
On the page, the play seems less for the stage than the screen. To solve this, director Meg Taintor has come up with the metaphor of a random, spilling-over tower of packing boxes—sculpted by lighting designer Yi-Chun Cheng—out of which spring the various props and costumes for each scene (the ingenious set design is by Afsoon Pajoufar). The actors throw props and costume pieces back and forth between each scene, and finally a box is turned about to announce “Age 9,” etc. Each scene includes full costuming.
This playground works spectacularly well in the snow people scene (with the addition of packing peanuts as ‘snow’), and along with the propulsive scene change underscoring by sound designer Bahar Royaee (who also provides sharp location cues), keeps the energy flowing. Yet the transitions still drop us out for crucial minutes, reminding us we are waiting for a dress to be zipped, etc.
Shannon Tyo, returning for her third show, is typically assertive, active and highly contemporary in her attitudes. She shines as the young Di, who you think could burn down the world at any moment (only to plant a better one.) She is less supple at navigating the quick switches of grown-up Di, a bit too quick to mask the character’s vulnerabilities.
Newcomer Cory Censenprano delights as Max. The young Max sort of folds in on himself, bounces about and explodes in outbursts of curiosity. The more troubled adult reads true in his swoops of depression and hope; Censenprano has a mercurial stage presence that reveals emotional shifts with lightness and alertness.
The Kitchen gives “Two Kids” a proud production, and I’d love to see other work by all the creatives.
The Two Kids That Blow Sh*t Up by Carla Ching; Kitchen Theatre through November 3