Damon Chua’s Incident at Hidden Temple, the current offering of Pan Asian Repertory Theatre, takes place in 1943 China, a dramatic juncture in East-West political relations and highly promising background for a play. The Nationalist Party and the Chinese Communists, usually incompatible as water and oil, have forged an alliance to resist Japan’s aggression. The two political groups—led, respectively, by Chiang Kai-Shek and Mao Tse-Tung—are restive bedfellows, with scant potential for long-term cooperation.
Recognizing that Japan, though small, is a formidable adversary, the Roosevelt administration has come to China’s aid with supplemental military personnel and strategic counsel. U.S. General Joseph W. Stilwell is supervising reform of the Chinese army, and a group of volunteer American pilots, nicknamed the Flying Tigers, is assisting the air force.
Much of Hidden Temple takes place on the military base where the Flying Tigers are stationed. Chua’s script is intermittently concerned with the political ramifications of the Americans’ presence in the midst of Chinese factionalism. But the play’s protagonist is Ava Chao (Ying Ying Li), a mind-boggling combination of Nancy Drew and Kit Kittredge with a little Lara Croft thrown in; and the historical elements of Hidden Temple reside uneasily in the progressively film noir-ish context of Ava’s wacky odyssey.
At the outset of Hidden Temple, an unidentified woman, agitatedly wielding a knife, assaults a man and leaves him for dead. It’s a brief, wordless prologue, staged in dimmest light and calling to mind the opening moments of W. Somerset Maugham’s melodrama The Letter (both on stage and in William Wyler’s movie version).
With the unidentified male figure quickly felled, Chua shifts his focus to Ava, and the play’s tone changes abruptly from melodrama to the kind of talky, realistic-seeming drama common on Broadway in the 1940s. Ava is a college student fleeing military conflict and looking for a safe place to park her younger sister, Lucy (Briana Sakamoto), until peace is restored in the land. When the sisters’ train is halted unexpectedly in the Chinese countryside, Ava encounters a blind man (Dinh James Doan) who tells her a yarn about an ancient temple, ostensibly nearby, that is only visible to the pure in heart.
“If and when the temple shows itself,” the blind man says, “all those present will be granted a wish.”
How can Ava resist? Though uncertain when the train will resume its journey, she sets off in search of the temple. She doesn’t locate the sacred site (at least not in Act I), but manages a quick flirtation with a young Chinese-American (Tim Liu) and stumbles upon the still-expiring victim of the knife attack in the play’s prologue (Nick Jordan).
Chua, whose 2015 drama Film Chinois was also produced by Pan Asian Rep, is a dab hand at spoofing the melodramatic conceits of film noir, but he hasn’t settled whether Hidden Temple should be a movie pastiche, an old-fashioned whodunit, supernatural puzzler, political drama, clash of western pragmatism and eastern spirituality, or a whimsical romance. His rococo plot unfolds in scenes that are radically varied in style—from melodrama reminiscent of Agatha Christie to solemn political discussion of what role the American military should play in China and how the chain of command under Stilwell may best handle Chiang Kai-Shek.
At times, Hidden Temple turns romantic—Ava has a chaste romance with the much older General Cliff Van Holt (Jonathan Miles); at other points, it’s fantastical, as when our heroine, though still an undergraduate journalism major, snags an interview with Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek and gets it published in the New York Herald-Tribune. There’s also a subplot involving Van Holt’s assistant Jing (Rosanne Ma), a hybrid of Turandot and the endearingly villainous Mrs. Mears, played by Beatrice Lillie in Thoroughly Modern Millie.
Many scenes in Hidden Temple are engaging, but, as a whole, the script has the half-baked quality of a project at the workshop stage. There are noteworthy performances by Doan (doubling as the Generalissimo and the Blind Man) and Jordan, who plays a civilian aid to Stilwell, as well as the mute murder victim of the first scene. But much of the acting is wooden, and the direction, by Kaipo Schwab, largely static.
In the penultimate scene of the play, Sheryl Liu (sets), Pamela Kupper (lighting), and Ian Wehrle (sound) engineer a minor coup de théâtre that far outstrips the serviceable design in the rest of the production. This moment, both in Chua’s text and as executed by the design team, is tenuously related to what has gone before, but it’s a welcome burst of visual and aural gratification and the high point of a rather long evening.
Damon Chua’s Incident at Hidden Temple, presented by Pan Asian Repertory Theatre, plays through Feb. 12 at the Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row (410 West 42nd St.). Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; matinees are at 2:30 p.m. Wednesday and Sunday. Tickets may be purchased by visiting www.ticketcentral.com.