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theatre review

Esther Jun as Janet, Paul Lee as Appa in Kim's Convenience.

Kim's Convenience has been billed as Soulpepper's "very first original full-length play," but that's only true if you discount the classical-theatre company's adaptations and collective creations – which I don't. Then again, I've never been entirely sure what a "full-length play" is. It brings to mind the children's joke, "How long should a horse's legs be?" (The answer: "Long enough to reach the ground.")

In any case, many new works of varying lengths have premiered at Soulpepper over the years and, in recent seasons, they have tended to explore and exalt the city of Toronto. Notably, there was Mike Ross's song cycle, Civil Elegies, based on the poetry of Dennis Lee; and Window on Toronto, created by the Soulpepper Academy.

While the latter allowed the audience to peer out at the frenetic city from inside a hot-dog cart, Kim's Convenience, written by former Academy member Ins Choi, turns that set-up inside out, allowing us to spend a day watching what happens inside a convenience store in the gentrifying Regent Park neighbourhood.

Ken MacKenzie's realistic set is instantly recognizable – from the chip racks to the pop fridge, from the sketchy-looking energy drinks on the counter to the cigarette shelves masked by ads.

Choi's play, a promising debut picked up after a sell-out run at the Toronto Fringe Festival, concerns the Korean-Canadian family who runs this shop and lives above it. Paul Sun-Hyung Lee stars as Mr. Kim, a burly proprietor who harbours a deep-seated hatred of the Japanese – and has the police on speed-dial for whenever he spots an illegally parked Toyota. Otherwise, he is idiosyncratically intolerant: While he has no particular problem with blacks, black men wearing jean jackets will always shoplift, he informs his daughter, Janet (a delightful Esther Jun).

Clé Bennett, of TV's Flashpoint, plays a variety of the store's black customers, last but not least a charismatic cop named Alex who ends up checking out with Janet.

Then there's Mr. Kim's son, Jung, who disappeared with a wad of cash from the safe 15 years ago in the aftermath of a violent family fight. Played by Choi, Jung still meets up on the sly with his religious mother (Jean Yoon) at church; he now has a new baby, but also a dead-end job, and is wondering whether he can stand to make the same kinds of sacrifices his father did when he immigrated to Canada.

With its prodigal-son storyline and emphasis on the gap between first-generation Canadians and their children, Kim's Convenience owes something to David French's Mercer-family plays. In style, however, it's closer to a sitcom, with snappy one-liners, light slapstick and intermittent doses of sentimentality.

Specifically, Kim's Convenience reminds me of those socially relevant 1970s comedies produced by Norman Lear – or Canada's King of Kensington. Come to think of it, you can imagine this being the pilot for a CBC remake: Kim of Regent Park.

The changing face of that neighbourhood – whether it's gentrification or genuine revitalization depends on your point of view – is an important theme in the play. Condos are going up, threatening to bring chain stores to compete with the Kims. Their church has already been sold to a developer. There are few Korean-Canadians left downtown.

While the world of the show is quite complex and colourful, filled with interesting insights into Korean-Canadian culture, Choi's resolution of the conflicts he sets up is not entirely convincing; problems just sort of evaporate. When father and son face off after an incredible 15 years of silence, it takes them less than 15 minutes to settle the score.

In the end, the relationship between Janet and her father is more dramatically developed: An argument they have, during which they calculate the costs of raising her versus the free labour she has provided to the store, is tremendous.

At the play's centre, Lee is a force as Mr. Kim, successfully navigating the somewhat jerky shifts in the character's emotional intelligence and ability to speak English. (He's quite fluent when necessary for the plot, but conveniently stumbles over words when it fuels a good joke.) As for Yoon's Mrs. Kim and Choi's Jung, I didn't feel I really got to know them. They seem more like supporting characters who will have larger roles to play after the pilot.

Kim's Convenience

  • Written by Ins Choi
  • Directed by Weyni Mengesha
  • Starring Paul Sun-Hyung Lee
  • At the Young Centre for the Performing Arts

Kim's Convenience runs to Feb. 11.

From Fringe to fame

J. Kelly Nestruck

Kim's Convenience sparked a bidding war among Toronto theatre companies after its Fringe Festival success last summer. It's not the first breakout play see its first curtain raised on Canada's Fringe circuit.

2009: My Mother's Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding

David Hein and Irene Carl Sankoff's heartfelt musical sold out the 100-seat Bread & Circus venue – and three months later reopened at the 700-seat Panasonic Theatre, produced by David Mirvish. The following year, it was named most promising musical at the New York Musical Theatre Festival; next month it opens at the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company.

2001: Da Kink in My Hair

Trey Anthony's show is about the women who frequent a Toronto hair salon. After a run at Theatre Passe Muraille, Mirvish Productions brought it to the Princess of Wales – and Da Kink has since had life in the U.S. and Britain.

1999: The Drowsy Chaperone

After a run at the Rivoli, The Drowsy Chaperone played the 1999 Toronto Fringe. Mirvish brought it to Passe Muraille, then the Winter Garden in 2001. A revised version opened on Broadway in 2006 and creators Bob Martin, Don McKellar, Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison won Tonys.

1995: MacHomer

Vocal chameleon Rick Miller's one-man adaptation of Macbeth, delivered as he channels characters from The Simpsons, premiered at the Montreal Fringe 17 years ago, and he's never really stopped performing it. Next summer, Miller will present it at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival as part of its 60th-anniversary season.

J. Kelly Nestruck

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