Theater: ‘Kung Fu’ tries to highlight the life of Bruce Lee

Kung Fu Bruce Lee
Cole Horibe stars as Bruce Lee in a stilted “Kung Fu.”
Credit: Joan Marcus

No, “Kung Fu” is not a stage adaptation of the ’70s television show starring David Carradine — although the series does feature in the play. David Henry Hwang’s latest is a blurry biography of martial arts legend Bruce Lee (Cole Horibe). It seems Lee’s fight against Hollywood stereotyping was tougher than anything he faced as a martial artist. The actor was attached to the “Kung Fu” series while it was in development, but was ultimately passed over for a Caucasian.

Lee wanted to show the world that Asians could do more than bow and scrape. He also wanted to prove to his father, Hoi-Chen (Francis Jue), he could achieve success. Hoi-Chen looms large in “Kung Fu,” appearing far too often, in flashback and an imagined present, belittling his son and his life choices. His pronouncements are wooden, as is Jue’s delivery.

“Kung Fu” starts with Lee as a young man and follows him as he moves to America, marries, has a child and plays Kato, the chauffeur on TV’s “The Green Hornet” — albeit masked to hide his ethnicity. It ends with Lee back in Hong Kong, about to begin his hugely successful career in film.

Hwangs’s script makes Lee’s life seem one-dimensional. The frequent apparitions by Hoi-Chen eat up time that could have been devoted to nuance. There’s lots of kung fu in the play, but too much of it concerns Lee’s students rather than Lee. “Kung Fu” just doesn’t deliver the goods. At play’s end, we do know new facts about Bruce Lee — but very little about his essence.

If you go

‘Kung Fu’
Through March 30
Irene Diamond Stage, Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd St.
$25 through March 16, $75 beginning March 18


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