Escape to New York: Only one sister makes it out of North Korea.
Escape to New York: Only one sister makes it out of North Korea.

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Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company announced plans to mount a show about North Korean poverty before Psy become a star rapping about South Korean decadence. Still, there’s a good chance you’ll think of “Gangnam Style” at some point during Mia Chung’s You for Me for You, which begins as a drama about life under a cruel dictatorship, and ends as a materialistic social satire.

You for Me for You is a few sexy subway scenes short of going viral, but its dueling narrative threads are compelling and brilliantly staged, and the play certainly cozies up to the geopolitical zeitgeist.

Undocumented immigrants? Embrace them! North Korea? Still cause for international concern. A growing income disparity and greedy American consumers? Oh, yes.

If you’re one of the 196,000 people who follow the fake Kim Jong-un Twitter feed, you know there’s a food shortage problem in North Korea. Little is known about day-to-day life in the impoverished republic, and that makes the country an ideal setting for a play grounded in magical realism. The story opens soberly, however, with two sisters arguing over who deserves more of their meager meal. Junhee, a factory worker, urges Minjee, her ill elder sister, to take the larger portion. A busy exchange of bowls and chopsticks ends with Junhee (Ruibo Qian) shoveling the entire contents of the pot into her mouth.

Soon the sisters are in trouble after attempting to bribe a cackling physician for better medical care, and their harrowing attempt to flee the country is conveyed through effective sound, lighting, and a super-cool jungle-gym-like structure. When the set rotates away—and sets do a lot of rotating in this play—Minjee (Jo Mei) has been left behind, and Junhee is in New York City.

At this point the narrative splits: One half is a psychological two-hander, with the Charon-like smuggler (Francis Jue) trying to convince Minjee that life under “dear leader” may all be a lie. “Perhaps a flock of cranes will appear soon, winging their way from Pyongyang,” he says. But this quickly becomes trying.

Far more magnetic are the scenes depicting Junhee’s new life in New York. Kimberly Gilbert plays a string of pink-clad Manhattanites, from cell phone sales girls to construction workers. When Junhee first arrives, Gilbert’s characters speak in baffling, faux-Asian syntax; as a patient Junhee is attending, Gilbert asks, “Whenzathe doctor commy? Canava magazee?”

The characters’ English improves the longer Junhee stays in New York, and her adventures in assimilation, from dating to shoe shopping, form a deeply affecting, whimsical immigration story. Chung employs multiple endings and voiceovers in her attempts to tie the narratives back together, and the denouement draws out a bit too long. One closing option has Junhee and her beau singing a satirical ballad about love and marriage that reminded me of the hokey “We’ll build our house and chop our wood!” refrain that closes Bernstein’s Candide. Thankfully, that’s not the note You for Me for You goes out on: As the lights dim, we get one final, bittersweet image of a sister sitting at a simple table, alone with her cereal and soy milk.