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Yellow Face

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Yellow Face
Hoon Lee
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Some plays sail on ambiguity and some are torpedoed by it. David Henry Hwang's mostly autobiographical Yellow Face, which just opened at the Public Theater's Martinson Hall, is an especially egregious example of the latter.

Chronicling his life from the late 1980s, when in the wake of winning the Best Play Tony Award for M. Butterfly he spearheaded the outrage against the casting of Jonathan Pryce in the Broadway production of Miss Saigon, through the early 2000s, Hwang's play is intended as a humorous and sophisticated expiation of his complex feelings of race as related to the theatre. It's not. Yellow Face is as cheese-fisted and dishonest as theatre gets, two and a half hours of tedious, self-concerned tripe masquerading as political art.

Followers of Hwang's work might not be surprised, as his post-M. Butterfly Broadway career has been inauspicious at best. His 1993 theatrical response to the Miss Saigon fracas, Face Value, closed in previews; his 1998 play Golden Child ran less than two months; his books for the Disney musicals Aida and Tarzan were widely (and rightly) derided for their triteness; and his new libretto for the 2002 production of Flower Drum Song, about which Hwang said "I tried to write the book that Oscar Hammerstein would have written if he were Asian-American," was the most reductive component of one of the least-successful Rodgers & Hammerstein productions in Broadway history.

Yet Hwang, as the only Asian-American playwright to have been produced on Broadway, is in a unique position to critique the industry. And in a play about that rather than about himself, he might well succeed at giving a shot in the arm to the somewhat insular world of Main Stem show-biz. Yellow Face, told almost entirely through narrators and press clippings like a cut-rate Laramie Project, isn't it, though many scenes he's scripted himself (including the nadir of the year, in which his attempt to anonymously buy porn magazines is thwarted by a newsstand owner who recognizes him) make you wish he had instead gone all documentary, all the time.

The only events of discernible note occur in the second act, when Hwang (played by Hoon Lee) confronts potential institutional racism that threatens to implicate both him and his entrepreneur father in a banking scandal involving emerging superpower China. In confronting a corrupt media, a hyperactively nervous government, and ancient notions of filial piety, Hwang unearths something that resembles nuanced, human feeling and emotional and intellectual conflict.

Of course, the success of this section of the show can be attributed primarily to the fact that it can be attributed (for once, the New York Times website's search engine is good enough for the job) - something that can't be said about the rest of the show. In deference to those who detest spoilers, I won't detail precisely how the remaining 90 percent of the play is predicated on a lie reversed in the play's last five minutes, giving you no reason to believe anything else that's come before. Or how Hwang's last-ditch dip into meta waters in those same five minutes feels like a cheap ploy to extract theatricality from an evening that flatlines from the first scene on.

Yellow Face
Hoon Lee and Noah Bean
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Nor will I tarnish the reputation of the director, who's provided some excellent staging for a number of fine works in New York over the past several years, by naming him or her. The modicum of sensitivity brought out during the inquest scenes in the second act is overshadowed by the ulcerating burlesque of the first, in which no actor or actress of any ethnicity other than Lee avoids embarrassment or stereotyping in creating a character. The promising idea of having the multiracial company routinely cross gender and racial lines to portray public figures can't gain any traction if everyone looks and behaves like the decrepit cast of a geriatric drag revue.

The two exceptions are the only actors who don't double up. Noah Bean is smooth and appropriately infuriating as the white actor who challenges Hwang's own notions about skin color and heritage, even if the character is slickly manufactured to the point of fauxness. Lee, however, adds a real and vivid presence to the proceedings, helping root them in a dignity nearly everyone else fails to achieve. His strong voice, imposing figure, and an uncommonly natural line delivery identify him as a flesh-and-blood man trapped in a nightmare of malfunctioning animatronics. Lee conveys Hwang's public and personal conviction confliction with more grace, subtlety, and charm than the actual Hwang manages in his writing.

The character of Hwang even admits, in the disastrous final scene, "I'm a writer. And, in the end, everything's always all about me." There's nothing wrong with that, especially from a playwright who's been at the forefront of some of the most significant battles theatre has seen in the last two decades. But if Yellow Face is really about wiping away the masks that hide our real selves from the outside world, Hwang's violating every common-sense rule of playwriting and vivisecting the audience's trust suggest he's actually more interested in slathering on still more makeup.


Yellow Face
Through December 23
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: The Public Theater