In his 1988 play M. Butterfly, playwright David Henry Hwang reinvented the opera Madame Butterfly with a meditation on themes of cultural stereotypes of East vs. West, and received a Tony Award for Best Play in the process. His career, although it never again reached the heights of success enjoyed by Butterfly, has continued to focus on the complicated idea of identity. However, some of his choices make his newest work Yellow Face, playing at the Public Theater, a muddled lecture. The publicity reps at the Public misrepresent Yellow Face as focusing on the real-life Hwang’s protest against the hiring of British thespian Jonathan Pryce to play the lead role of Eurasian pimp The Engineer in Miss Saigon. (Pryce received rave reviews and won a Tony for the role.) However, this protest is little more than a jumping-off point for the show, which traces Hwang’s journey in analyzing the blurred line between the role of identity in life and in performance. Hwang addresses some of the issues raised in the Saigon fracas in his 1993 follow-up play, Face Value, which closed during previews on Broadway.
Face Value gives birth to a very important chapter in Hwang’s career. He hires an actor named Marcus to play the lead role, an Asian-American, even though Marcus (Noah Bean, late of FX’s Damages) bears confidently Caucasian features. Hwang himself distorts facts and history to supply Marcus with a partially Asian identity, giving birth to a new persona for Marcus, one which leads to a successful career that includes a stint as the king in The King and I.
This is where Yellow Face gets confusing. Face existed, but Marcus and his dilemma do not. And so, as though it were a Charlie Kaufman script, the character of David Henry Hwang (identified as DHH), as played in a dynamic performance by Hoon Lee, experiences an amalgam of real and imagined events in the playwright’s life. What results is a highly entertaining but sometimes confusing meditation on the creative role of the writer. DHH is essentially the parent to Marcus, and their relationship often (but not consistently) parallels the relationship between DHH and his own father Henry Y. Hwang (played by Francis Jue as HYH).
HYH was the CEO of the Far East National Bank and was the subject of an investigation in the late 1990s regarding money laundering for the Central Bank of China, and this scandal shifts the focus off of Marcus in the second act of Yellow Face, making it more poignant but also more disjointed. Hwang the playwright’s attempt seems to be to address the subject of cultural identity stereotypes (which he does most succinctly in a scene revolving around an interview between DHH and an unnamed reporter for The New York Times (Anthony Torn)). But this thesis emerges too late in the show to feel supported as an academic premise. I wonder if Hwang had either kept the premise lighter or created a more fictional piece altogether, perhaps his message would have been less muddled.
What works better is his ensemble cast, who play a multitude of roles that cross lines of gender and race and often invoke stage in-jokes. Julienne Hanzelka Kim, Kathryn A. Layng and Lucas Caleb Rooney round out a cast that bounces back and forth between lighter and heavier scenes, and makes each small moment count. Bean is outstanding as Marcus, a role that shifts in the audience’s eye the more DHH himself learns about him; I look forward to seeing what this young performer does next onstage. Together, Lee and Jue share the best working relationship; I fully believed that I was watching a father and son act together on stage.
Hwang clearly writes about a subject on which he holds much expert power – he is the lone Asian-American playwright to have been produced on Broadway, and his experiences (both successful and disappointing) have informed his opinions. But his decision to stage a play full of meta-analysis disarms any actual analysis he hopes to achieve.