Alex Luu's one-man performance piece Three Lives proves that a great autobiography doesn't make you a great storyteller. Luu made a harrowing escape from Saigon in 1975 at the age of 8 and has since struggled painfully —sometimes comically—to find his way in the Land of the Free. In Three Lives, he plays three roles: himself; his proud father, reduced to a life of menial labor; and his kindly grandfather, uprooted from Vietnam and reduced to a shadow-like existence under the American sun. Luu's life deserves nothing but respect; Three Lives doesn't always merit the same admiration.
Luu is a fine, energetic performer, fully capturing his characters' self-consciousness, anger, sadness and humiliation. But he's no writer. Three Lives suffers from a lack of deep stuff (poetry, profundity, style) and little stuff (details). When those details are present (his father's hands reduced to bloody spindles from years of working as a dishwasher; the smell of barbecued pork and fried rice), they flavor Luu's story, providing it with its fingerprint-unique identity. But such details are scarce. For instance, we never learn how Luu's family managed to find its life-saving spot on the last U.S. chopper out of Saigon. Luu's father's humiliation at finding himself reduced to life as a dishwasher would resonate better if we knew what he had done in the old country.
The absence of details and of a defined writing voice prevented me from identifying with Luu's struggle to make it in America. What befalls him in the U.S. doesn't seem that different from a hundred other experiences we've heard or had: the language barrier, the schoolyard taunts, the racism. Nothing that befalls Luu in America matches the horror of, say, a young Tiger Woods being tied to a tree by fellow students on his first day of elementary school in Cypress.
One aspect of Three Lives does fully register: the significance Luu's father attaches to psychic strength. Luu would have us believe there's something particularly Asian in the notion that impotence tattoos you as an immigrant; it seems a safe bet it's more universal than that. But by the time he's a college student, Alex has emulated so perfectly his father's power trip that he has lost himself and is estranged from his father and every other male in his family.
It's obvious that Luu no longer follows Dad's advice about power, weakness and identity. If he had, he would never have written Three Lives and would not be a performance artist. That much is a personal triumph. If Luu would look more closely at the molecular structure of his autobiography—at the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of it—Three Lives would be an artistic triumph as well.
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Three Lives at the Empire Theater, 200 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 547-4688. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m. $15-$20.