Writer and performer Sandra Tsing Loh, a National Public Radio commentator, brings a decidedly NPR-ish quality to her one-woman show “Aliens in America.” Intelligent, thoughtful, decent and civil, there’s no writhing anguish, no nudity, no ranting attacks on the audience. No . . . rudeness. Oh, yes, she does come forward from the stage at one point, but it is to smell an audience member’s perfume and offer a sniff of her own scented writst in exchange. It is a gentle moment, in keeping with the many other small delights of her well-crafted performance and finely spun text.
Loh chronicles three stages in her life, beginning with adulthood and her reaction to her widowed Chinese father’s efforts to find a Chinese wife. She then moves to her childhood, recalling a family vacation in Ethiopia (“educational and economical,” as the penny-pinching father describes it), with the spotlight on her ever-optimistic German mother (“We are all foreigners in a foreign land”).
Final segment has Loh revisiting adolescence, giving her parents supporting roles and making herself the main character in a revealing account of an awkward coming-of-age moment.
Long and lean, in pleated black trousers and a sleeveless blouse that reveals her expressive arms, Loh is somehow reminiscent of the young Mary Tyler Moore. At this point in her career, she is a stronger writer than performer, with a gift for the telling detail, if not physical interpretation.
Nevertheless, it is a pleasure to watch her graceful gestures as she simulates how her well-educated father grows to resemble the stereo-type of an ancient, bent-over Chinese gardener, or the sweeping movements of her mother as she raises a glass of schnapps while leading the guests at a dinner party in a chorus of “Edelweiss.”
Loh has tapped the theatrical traditions of both her parental back-grounds, neatly blending, with the able support of director Steve Kaplan, a touch of Brechtian alienation with a dash of Peking Opera.
Another bit of cross-culturalism is the single piece of scenery provided by set designer Lauren Helpern, a sloping palm tree that provides a sense of place whether the locale is Loh’s native Los Angeles, the jungles of Ethiopia or, more imaginatively, in front of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Sound design by Aural Fixation provides incidental music reminiscent of NPR’s “all Things Considered.” And if we could see as well as hear NPR, surely it would have the smartly colored look provided by Traci Klainer-McDonnell’s lighting.