‘Catch as Catch Can’ Off Broadway Review: Mia Chung’s Play Examines Racism at the Coffee Klatsch

Keen dialogue and sharp performances lift the early moments of this new play

catch as catch can
"Catch as Catch Can" (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Roberta Lavecchia and Theresa Phelan have so much in common despite the one being Italian Catholic and the other being Irish Catholic. When they have finished gossiping about Diana and Kate and Meghan, they turn their attention stateside to wonder how both their sons ever ended up with Asian women.

As it turns out, Roberta and Theresa are slightly more informed about British royalty than they are about Chinese or Korean vaginas. Are these foreign women really tight? Are they actually horizontal down there? The racial stereotypes bantered about over this particular kitchen table are no less egregious than the ethnic ones regarding the women of Irish and Italian descent presented here on stage.  

Mia Chung’s “Catch as Catch Can” opened Wednesday at Off Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons, and within the first moments of this 105-minute play, it rivets thanks to the keen dialogue and the even sharper performances of Jon Norman Schneider and Rob Yang. As a comedy duo, these actors recall Damon Wayans and David Alan Grier at their best in the “Men in Film” episodes of “In Living Color.” Appalling stereotypes can be funny, especially when it is straight actors making fun of gay men on primetime TV or it is male actors making fun of women in “Catch as Catch Can.”

Schneider and Yang also play Roberta and Theresa’s sons, Robbie and Tim, and while their switching back and forth between the two sets of characters induces whiplash, it’s a pleasurable jolt to the audience experience. It keeps you on your toes to sort out the puzzle of who’s who, what’s what. Not only does the exercise show off the actors’ technique, it exploits the innate slipperiness of the theater. Even the movies, through editing and dissolves, can’t morph characters and situations as quickly.

When this legerdemain is working on stage, it delights. When it’s not working, the play spews out a wall of fog, and that happens in “Catch” as soon as Chung introduces Roberta’s husband, Lon, played by Cindy Cheung, who also plays Roberta’s daughter, Daniela. It’s not always clear which character Cheung is playing. In fact, it’s not even clear who Lon is supposed to be.

Chung puts her best foot forward into the American swamp with Roberta and Theresa, but the gamble of having the same actors play their respective sons has no payoff, because neither Robbie nor Tim command anywhere near the same level of interest as the two moms. Beyond general confusion, Daniela and Lon barely make an impression.

If the devil gets all the best lines, then the two bigots here deliver all the biggest laughs. Much too early, Chung retires her most vivid characters, and without Roberta and Theresa to entertain us with their casual racism, “Catch as Catch Can” turns very Paddy Chayefsky in telling the tragedy of not one but two sons. Ernest Borgnine’s mother in “Marty” has a lot to answer for. This much guilt, she never had to bear.

Daniel Aukin directs.