- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Most everyone likes new shoes, but nobody wants to be the new kid, the ill-fitting one not yet comfy and broken in.

Nick (Brian Lee Huynh), a recent emigre from Vietnam, faces this clumsy rite of passage in Dennis Foon’s undeniably earnest “New Kid,” a play about assimilation and bullying at Imagination Stage.

Moving from Vietnam to an urban community in America — a journey conveyed through the graceful use of Thai shadow puppets — is an unsettling culture shock for young Nick, who clutches the rice bowl given to him by friends back home like a teddy bear before embarking on his first day of school. In a clever and inspired device, Nick and his mother (Jen Plants) speak English to each other and to the audience, but what they hear coming out of the mouths of the Americans is exuberant gibberish composed of recognizable phrases such as “Yo!,” “Cuisinart” and “tickle me Elmo” along with glints of Spanish and German.

Nick hasn’t a clue what his schoolmates Mench (Tiernan Madorno) and Mug (Dan Crane) are saying, and through windmilling gestures and much pointing, they struggle to communicate. Mench is a real mensch, befriending Nick and encouraging him to play games with her during recess. Mug, on the other hand, seems to have inherited his father’s prejudice against Southeast Asians. He begins by hurling the claptrap epithet “Sgak!” at Nick, which quickly escalates into boorish pranks and physical violence.

Both Nick and Mench are besieged by Mug, until they learn to stand up for themselves and their budding friendship. As Nick begins to learn the lingua franca, he also helps his mother loosen her grip on the past and navigate through an unfamiliar culture.

“New Kid” practically turns itself inside out to please and instruct the audience, and while the performances are brisk and engaging, the strain of trying too hard impacts the overall appeal of the show. You get the feeling “New Kid” is talking at the young audience rather than sharing the universal experience of feeling strange and out of place and having to deal with aggression and bullies. The show is short and sometimes overly glib, missing out on opportunities of authentic connection — such as when Nick helps his mother cope with an embarrassing incident at the grocery store.

“New Kid” feels formless and abrupt, going for the easy solution and happy ending rather than delving into the conflicting emotions of being way out of your comfort zone. You also might question just how a big a deal it actually is for children of different cultures and ethnicities to fit into such a multicultural jamboree as metropolitan Washington. Naturally, a learning curve is to be expected, but in this area is it really so odd to have children from Vietnam and other environs in the schools?

The “New Kid” in many ways is old hat.

..

WHAT: “New Kid,” by Dennis Foon

WHERE: Imagination Stage, 4908 Auburn Ave., Bethesda

WHEN:12:30, 3:30 and 7 p.m. Saturdays, 12:30 and 3:30 p.m. Sundays. Through June 3.

TICKETS: $10 to $20

PHONE: 301/280-1660

WEB SITE: www.imaginationstage.org

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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