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Golden Child

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Greg Watanabe with Annie Q.
Photo by Richard Termine.

The swirl of history, as perceived through the lenses of both kin and country, is the atmosphere that pervades the new revival of David Henry Hwang's Golden Child at the Pershing Square Signature Center. Leigh Silverman's production highlights, above all else, a lesson worth remembering at any time: that the devastating impact that the choices of today have not only on the future, but also the past.

Such an approach is appropriate, perhaps even desirable, given the content and the context of Hwang's play, which premiered on Broadway in 1998. Additional clarity is useful, if not downright necessary, for this examination of the Westernization of China in the early 1900s. Hwang views his subject critically, if not always disapprovingly, and achieves some handsome results. But he often struggles in his attempts to link one Chinese family's adoption of Christianity to more theatrical truths.

This is not, however, through lack of trying. In the opening scene, set in the late 1960s, a young man visiting Manila (Greg Watanabe) attempts to interview his grandmother, Eng Ahn (Annie Q), about her life, but she's only interested in speaking of the Bible and Jesus. Eventually, they reach a compromise, and as she begins to relate how their family "come to be chosen by God," he sheds his glasses and she her elderly garb and mien to rip away five decades of astonishing evolution.

It's through this smooth, affecting transition that Watanabe becomes his own great-grandfather, Eng Tieng-Bin, who initiated this private crusade. Wealthy and married three times over, he's been away in the Philippines for three years, during which time he's become enamored of the West and its religion, and intent on introducing them at home. Naturally, this sends ripples of discontent through his relationships with his first wife (Julyana Soelistyo), whom he respects; his third wife (Lesley Hu), whom he honestly loves; and his second wife (Jennifer Lim), who always looks out for her own interests first.

Hwang's and Silverman's hands become more visible as the new beliefs infect the household, and traditions alternately grow and gut themselves. Tieng-Bin's choice to reverse Eng Ahn's foot binding, for example, sends (literal) screams cascading through the generations, showing in one daring swoop his embracing of the new at the expense of the old (and some temporary discomfort). His spiritual sponsor, Reverend Baines (Matthew Maher), speaks in a delightfully halting dialect that gently mocks the awkwardness with which English speakers attempt Chinese. And in a series of compelling scenes in Act II, the wives must face the consequences of their actions as viewed from contexts both in the here and now and from beyond the grave.

Jennifer Lim, Annie Q, Julyana Soelistyo, and Lesley Hu.
Photo by Richard Termine.

Such moments strongly fix Hwang's intentions, and orient us to them. But for the most part, the play and the production are awash in a quiet stateliness that doesn't always amplify the theme as well as it could. Much of the emotional involvement is assumed as a by-product of the plot, with the connections between thoughts and feelings (particularly on Tieng-Bin's side) seldom coalescing into anything substantial. The wives represent a brashly obvious embodiment of the troubles Tieng-Bin is addressing, where more subtlety might cut deeper. Worse yet, Eng Ahn's conversion, set up as elemental in the first lines, advances almost entirely offstage, leaving the ultimate dramatic destination more of a letdown than it ought to be.

Silverman can't do much to compensate for that, of course, although her precise, serene staging imparts a peacefulness that's beautifully juxtaposed against the story's roilingly unsteady heart; and designers Neil Patel (set), Anita Yavich (costumes), Matt Frey (lights), and Darron L. West (sound) have established a properly intricate and colorful world of their own. And even when things fail to land completely, the clear-eyed care with which Hwang has crafted this work remains impressive, not least because that quality has been less evident in his more recent librettos for the musicals Tarzan, Flower Drum Song, and Aida, and the plays Yellow Face and Chinglish.

The acting, too, is attractively pitched, with only Watanabe, who's nonetheless forceful and charismatic, not capturing all the nuances of his character's warring internal worldviews. Soelistyo (who originated the role of Eng Ahn), Lim (so memorable from Chinglish), and Hu wring every bit of intensity from their roles, and keep the tensions at a fast simmer throughout. Maher, meanwhile, never lets so much as half a wink creep into his portrayal, and comes across as sympathetically affecting. And, despite the gaps in the writing, Annie Q effortlessly portrays all the transformations inherent in Eng Ahn's life.

It's just the kinds of changes she endures, how they're dealt with, and what they lead to that are central and most fascinating issues in Golden Child. The last 14 years have not dulled the intellectually absorbing way with which Hwang dissects a culture at the crossroads, but they also haven't deepened it overall. America is continually facing concerns similar to those addressed here, and if a more emotionally engaging treatment might better point toward answers, at least Silverman's production proves that those questions are still worth asking.

Golden Child
Through December 16
Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at The Signature Theatre Company
480 West 42nd Street between Dyer Avenue & 10th Avenue
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