S.F. Playhouse Stages a Tired Tune

Award-winning playwright Lauren Yee’s ‘Song of Summer’ is too weighed down by clichés.

Included in the S.F. Playhouse press kit for The Song of Summer is the 2015 Mic article, “Here’s the Obscene Amount of Money ‘Blurred Lines’ Made Off of Sexism.” As the clickbait headline suggests, the piece is a subjective look at the financial success of Robin Thicke’s controversial hit. Nevertheless, it provides some solid numbers and makes a fair point about the historic profitability of rape culture. It’s disturbing to know misogyny is still incredibly profitable, even in the #MeToo era.

It was in 2017 — the same year that two exposés revealed decades of abuse by Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein — that Lauren Yee premiered The Song of Summer. One would be remiss not to point out the parallels between Yee’s play, which dramatizes the “Blurred Lines” backlash, and David Mamet’s Bitter Wheat, which dramatized the Weinstein scandal. In each case, playwrights from marginalized groups work far too hard to apologize for sleazy white guys.

Yee leaves no doubt as to her play’s inspiration, opening with Robin Thicke-stand-in “Robbie” (Jeremy Kahn) performing his sexually-explicit chart-topper to a large North Carolina crowd. The jeers come out of nowhere. (One is reminded of the classic Lisa Simpson line “Why would they come to our concert just to ‘boo’ us?”) It seems as if the crowd decided halfway through the song to side with the song’s critics, who have described the lyrics as “rape-y” and have accused Robbie of plagiarizing an unnamed soul classic from a Black musician — the same way Thicke (and producer Pharrell Williams) faced accusations of cribbing from Marvin Gaye.

Retreating from the public eye, Robbie returns to his one-horse hometown of Pottsville, Penn., and onto the sofa of his former mother figure and piano teacher Mrs. C (Anne Darragh). When manager Joe (Reggie D. White) finally catches up with Robbie, he brings good and bad news: The label wants to commit to a five-album contract (pending a meet-and-greet), but the controversy over the song shows no signs of waning. 

Robbie may be able to alleviate the controversy by revealing a tape of him singing it as a teenager. Unfortunately, doing so puts him face-to-face with his childhood friend Tina (Monica Ho) — and he is not looking forward to that meeting.

The Song of Summer is essentially two plays in one — each fighting the other for dominance. The first is the story of a big fish returning to a small pond only to find that, at first glance, very little has changed. The other is the aforementioned ripped-from-the-headlines story of a white boy being a dick in public only to whine about why he now has to face consequences.

The latter story doesn’t work. It’s one thing for a dramatist to humanize and empathize with a real-life villain, but it’s another to try and paint them as the “real victim.” Like Mamet, Yee wants us to feel sorry for a guy who, in real life, didn’t feel the least bit sorry about what he did until he actually got caught. It’s all the more distressing from Yee — an S.F. native who rightfully won awards for bringing AAPI stories to life — who uses a Black man and an Asian woman (both outwardly aggressive characters) as a means of deflecting blame away from her white male lead.

She’s a better writer than that. Had she stuck solely to the “big fish” angle (Tina describes recreation in Pottsville as “driv[ing] around. You can also park.”), the story would likely have only benefited from it.

The Song of Summer is the second S.F. Playhouse show to welcome back live audiences after June’s Hold These Truths, and the opening night audience was a bit fuller for this play (a few people didn’t wear masks the entire show, though everyone had to show proof of vaccination or recent negative test results). I’m guessing that artistic director Bill English, who serves as this show’s director and set designer, wanted something more “light” after the hard-hitting solo work of the last show. As usual, his technical and visual command of the Playhouse’s rotating stage is reason enough to want to see the production — which is also streaming — at the Playhouse theatre.

He also keeps the show moving at a steady clip with the help of his cast. I don’t know Kahn’s age, but he looks a bit beyond Robbie’s years. It’s not Ian McKellan’s recent turn as Hamlet, but Kahn certainly looks older than a character that goes from his mid-teens to mid-20s. What’s more, he never seems to find the right tone for Robbie, constantly showing that he’s playing dumb rather than letting us believe the character is truly dimwitted.

Darragh brings a perfect level of matronly affection to Mrs. C, and it’s always great to see the Bay Area’s own White elevate material with his electric presence. (Incidentally, I attended the show wearing a pin from Impact Theatre, White’s former Berkeley theater home.)

Yet, all the actors seem to disappear when sharing the stage with Ho. Having recently announced she’ll soon be moving to New York, the Bay Area will be losing a reliable talent who’s commanded the stage at ACT and Cal Shakes as well as PianoFight and the EXIT. She brings genuine heart to Tina, allowing it to shine through the character’s outward aggression. When Tina finally lets her guard down, the actor has made it a natural step from Point A to Point B.

In a way, Yee has broken so many boundaries that The Song of Summer seems like a stab at convention. The “based on a true story” aspect smacks of Bye Bye Birdie and Robbie and Tina’s “will they/won’t they” angry flirtation reminds one of Nora Ephron or Nancy Meyers. It’s no fault of Yee’s that she tried, and both cast and director give it their best. Still, the clichés are abundant and the white apology angle is just cringe-inducing. Yee is the sort of talent who should be elevating, not allowing herself to be dragged down by tropes.

The Song of Summer
July 20 – Aug. 14 | 88 minutes, no intermission
Live In-Person and On-demand Stream | $15 – 100 | SFPlayhouse.org

Charles Lewis III is a San Francisco-born journalist, theater artist, and arts critic. thethinkingmansidiot.wordpress.com

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