As we meet Bruce Lee, he's deploying his moves on a Japanese-American girl after a martial-arts workout. She'd be impressed except that he's Chinese-American. "Over here," she says, meaning America, "Chinese guys do laundry and wait tables. Better get used to it."
David Henry Hwang's defiant "Kung Fu," which opened last night at Signature Theatre, is all about R-E-S-P-E-C-T. (We half expect an Aretha Franklin serenade.) In his New York stage debut, Cole Horibe, season 9 second runner-up on Fox-TV's "So You Think You Can Dance," flashes his fists and feet almost as fast as his taut smile.
But, as Lee, nothing wipes that grimace/grin off Horibe's face so quickly as flashbacks with Bruce's father, a Chinese opera clown played by Francis Jue with an unrelenting mantra of reproach. "Fool!" he exclaims at each overreach by his son, who has forsaken old China.
Younger Lee's irrepressible drive signifies the new China in this crisp bio-dance directed by Leigh Silverman. But Lee's struggle -- sidekick Emmanuel Brown's jesting aside -- is nearly as fraught as Mao's. Setbacks bring Lee low enough that -- horrors! -- his American wife takes a job. Injury leaves Lee so prone that preparing a PB&J sandwich for his little boy, a disarming Bradley Fong, amounts to an Olympic challenge.
Phoebe Strole makes a strong impression as his wife, Linda, embodying the Western allure cleaving Lee's Eastern identity. He wants it all, including a mansion he can't furnish (spare design by David Zinn, East-West costumes by Anita Yavich) because his masked breakthrough, TV's "Green Hornet," is canceled. No American network will cast a Chinese face in a starring role.
Clifton Duncan as a counter-cast James Coburn, throws his lean-mean weight around. Coburn, Lee's Hollywood martial-arts student, advises him to mine movie fame in Hong Kong. Ultimately, that's Lee's route to superstardom.
But "Kung Fu," ironically the title of an ABC series that Lee pitched only to be displaced by David Carradine, assumes we know all that, as well as his death at age 32 of brain swelling. Unless you're invested in Bruce Lee mythology, it's unlikely "Kung Fu" will engage you beyond the nifty martial-arts disco choreographed by Sonya Tayeh to Ben Stanton's flashy lighting.
Like the Japanese girl at the start, we're just watching.
WHAT: "Kung Fu" by David Henry Hwang
WHEN, WHERE: Through March 30, Pershing Square Signature Theatre, 480 W. 42nd St.
TICKETS: $75; 212-244-7529, signaturetheatre.org
BOTTOM LINE: Kung fu disco