Crowd-pleasing play too eager to please the crowd

It’s not hard to see why Theatre Calgary opted to bring in Kim’s Convenience to launch its season. Originally an award-winning fringe fest production by newcomer Ins Choi and expanded by Toronto’s Soulpepper Productions the production’s blend of race-based humour and family drama is an undeniable people-pleaser. It’s also impressive to see Calgary’s largest theatre company putting a new Canadian work especially one so focused on a minority experience in such a prominent position in its season. Still despite a beyond-enthusiastic reception from audiences and critics alike Choi’s script reflects his status as a first-time writer shunning subtlety in favour of broad jokes and easy sentimentality.

Set in a flawless re-creation of a downtown Toronto convenience store (Ken MacKenzie’s production design is impeccable) Kim’s Convenience centres on Mr. Kim a blustery stubborn and kinda racist Korean-Canadian played with warmth and offbeat charm by Paul Sun-Hyung Lee. A schoolteacher in his homeland Kim’s poor English made that career an impossibility in his new home; instead he’s spent the last three decades working every day in the convenience store that doubles as the family home.

The family’s relations are strained. Daughter Janet (Esther Jun) is 30 years old and “single ready to mingle” as her mother half-jokingly puts it. Son Jung (Choi in a small but key role) left home 15 years prior after getting tangled in the community’s seedier side. Kim’s wife (Jean Yoon) is dealing with the closure of her church the result of development or gentrification depending on your perspective and Kim himself is unsure of his place in the new condo-and-Walmart-filled landscape. Offered a large sum by a customer-turned-developer (Andre Sills who plays all four of the store’s customers) Kim must choose between a comfortable retirement and the legacy he’s spent decades building.

That nearly every one of those issues (and several others) are resolved over the course of a single day is part of the problem with the play. Choi’s script is too eager to please tripping over itself in the last act to provide tidy conclusions even when they require split-second emotional transitions from the (fortunately more-than-capable) cast. Elsewhere it’s eagerly brightening the mood with jokes that wouldn’t feel out of place in a hacky sitcom like an extended riff that relies on how Kim’s accent make “peanuts” sound like “penis” or an explanation of which races and genders are most likely to shoplift.

In its original context as a fringe production by an unknown Canadian playwright Kim’s Convenience would likely be a pleasant surprise. As a touring version of a sold-out Toronto sensation though it sets up certain expectations. It’s clearly a labour of love and executed with skill but like the store it’s set in it doesn’t offer much more than a sugar rush at best.

Kim’s Convenience runs until September 29 at Max Bell Theatre.