Kim’s Convenience – Review by Brooks Appelbaum

It’s rare that I become fonder of a play the day after I’ve seen it. However, in the case of Ins Choi’s “Kim’s Convenience,” running at Westport Country Playhouse through July 17, what initially seemed a thin slice of life rather than a fully-fledged and satisfying production, has, upon more reflection, made a deeper impression.

Choi’s story follows a mostly familiar pattern, although the family in question is Korean and the setting is Toronto (these elements are the scripts’ main strengths). Appa, a stern father and the Mr. Kim of the title (played by the marvelous David Shih), is disappointed in his thirty-year-old daughter, Janet (a pleasingly tough Cindy Im), for being single and choosing a career as a photographer rather than a doctor or lawyer. We also learn that he conflicted so violently with his son that Jung (Hyunmin Rhee) left home at sixteen.

Appa stubbornly holds onto his store, Kim’s Convenience, even though the condos being built nearby and the Walmart soon to come may well drive him out of business. And his wife, Umma (a luminous Chuja Seo), appears to be both submissive and without even the limited English that her husband has acquired.

Initially, the humor comes from two customers, both played skillfully by Eric R. Williams, whose interactions with Appa demonstrate both Appa’s rigid nature and cultural clashes. Williams also plays policeman Alex, a friend of Jung’s from long ago, and Alex’s interactions with Appa, as well as Janet, also create comedy in both language and action.

By the time 80 minutes have passed, some family discord has been resolved, and enough plot threads are left hanging to make it clear why this 2011 work was picked up as a television show, running from 2016-2021. It’s easy to dismiss “Kim’s Convenience” as looking too much like the pilot for that series, but by the end of the play, and largely due to the superb acting and directing (by Nelson T. Eusebio III), we have become immersed in family dynamics both familiar—from our own families and from numerous plays before this one—and new, partly because this family is Korean, but partly because Choi has the imagination to, for example, give us the jolting and satisfying vision of a daughter, at the end of her rope, pinning her formidable father down with a martial arts hold. This act has nothing to do with Janet being Korean and everything to do with Janet being Janet.

In addition to the acting, direction, and an unexpected final scene, the set, by You-Shin Chen, is spectacular in its perfect evocation of a Korean-Canadian convenience store, especially twinned with Marie Yokoyama’s lighting design. The only flaw here comes when the action shifts out of the store. I, sitting in a left aisle seat close to the stage, could see everything, but I wondered about my fellow audience members, sitting further back or towards the right.

Lux Haac has designed costumes that perfectly enhance the characters. Zoe Kim and Bebe Mama have given the actors marvelous dialect coaching, and Michael Rossmy’s skill as Fight Director/Intimacy Coach is clear.

One of the most moving elements of Choi’s play is Appa’s emphasis on his “story,” by which he means his life. Choi, in his Playwright’s Notes, mentions stories often and writes, “Stories are disarming, engaging our imaginations and viscerally reminding us of when we were all a little more supple.” In “Kim’s Convenience,” (his debut play), Choi has done what he set out to do. And Westport’s polished production supports his intentions in every way.