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The Dance and the Railroad

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

The Dance and the Railroad
Yuekun Wu and Ruy Iskandar.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

The confluence of art and practicality is on display in the Signature Theatre Company’s revival of The Dance and the Railroad before a single word is spoken. Sweeping geometric panels from Frank Gehry’s design of the Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center, melt from the walls and mezzanine into the set itself. Terrifying and unpredictable angles gradually resolve into slopes and plateaus that stack onto each other to create a structure that’s as imposing as it is alluring. There’s no question that what you’re looking at onstage is a mountain, but it’s one that looks as determined to be at war with itself as the present often is with the past.

Mimi Lien’s scenic design is, in other words, an ideal landscape against which to set David Henry Hwang’s brief but impactful look at the collision of attitudes and cultures in the mid-19th century. The two Chinese men, Ma and Lone, who have come to the United States to help build the transcontinental railroad, are confronting many similar questions about their meaning and their roles in the process of creation. Lone was a promising opera actor who was spirited to America to earn money for his struggling family; Ma, even younger and more naïve, believed the legends he heard about America’s wealth and freedom, and has come to pursue them so he may one day play the coveted opera role of Gwan Gung himself, an accomplishment for which Lone used to be headed.

Because Ma doesn’t understand the commitment required to attain such a lofty goal, and because the apparent death of Lone’s hope has left his talent unused and his outlook cynical and hopeless, they’re naturally poised to find the support and understanding they need in each other. And, presently sidelined by a strike that promises to grant Chinese workers more respect and better pay, there’s plenty of time for them both to learn and teach — and about more than just the lines, dances, and significance behind the craft that has consumed them both.

Their joint determination, as filtered through both the heavily stylized format of the Chinese opera and the harsh realities of the working world they can’t escape, represents an engaging attribute of Hwang at his youngest, freshest, and most experimental. (The Dance and the Railroad premiered in New York at The Public Theater in 1981.) Considerably more subtle and subversive than many of Hwang’s recent plays (including Yellow Face and Chinglish), this one captivates as much by what it doesn’t say as by what it does: The tragic undercurrents of Ma and Lone’s quest for perfection are only gradually revealed, exploding in the climax that sees the two improvising a modern opera about their own compelling life stories, but otherwise trusting you — like the characters — to develop your own perspective and point of view.

Neither the play nor the production is flawless. The running time of well under 90 minutes is not quite sufficient for exploring all the complexities Hwang introduces — he suggests that Ma and Lone have more interesting relationships with their white coworkers than ever materialize in dialogue — and the work’s limited focus does not always seem to agree with the breadth of its attempted scope. May Adrales’s direction, which hits the proper notes but seldom lets them resonate as long or as deeply as they should, does not contribute much additional weight of its own, and is often unevenly paced.

The actors compensate for many such minor deficiencies, however, with Yuekun Wu robustly embodying the wounded arrogance of the diminished Lone, and Ruy Iskandar even better at capturing the energetic and enterprising Ma as he works to make sense of the increasingly confusing choices he’s made. When the two are immersed in lessons, such as when imitating ducks or locusts, or literally acting for their lives in the finale, they project a compelling kinship that reinforces the ways in which traditions, when challenged, need not always be lost.

Of course, Hwang is not saying that the difficulties and disappointments that result from trying to hang on to those traditions are necessarily as constructive as what’s torn down around them; and, remember, this is all unfolding on an impossibly artistic mountain that is itself being assaulted in the name of progress. The Dance and the Railroad provokes because it investigates the balance that may be found amid such sacrifices, and how it, too, can encourage development. If Lone and Ma’s aspirations are endangered, we may at least find solace in the fact that their dreams remain fertile ground from which further inspiration — and perhaps better lives — may yet one day sprout.


The Dance and the Railroad
Through March 24
Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at The Signature Theatre Company, 480 West 42nd Street between Dyer Avenue & 10th Avenue
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: signaturetheatre.org