Bitchy is hardly the word you might associate with a play about the tumult created when a forward-thinking business man in 1918 China brings Western gadgetry and Christianity into the home he shares with his three wives.
Yet, for much of the first half of David Henry Hwang's semi-autobiographical Golden Child, originally seen on Broadway in 1998 and now opening in a season dedicated to Hwang's work at Signature Center, you'll find crisply constructed linguistic catfights taking center stage.
Indeed, it's when Julyana Soelistyo, Jennifer Lim, and Lesley Hu, playing the first, second and third wives, respectively, of Eng Tieng-Bin (Greg Watanabe), are going at one another while jockeying for power – and the preservation of the traditions they've known all their lives – that both the play and director Leigh Silverman's consistently stylish production are most successful.
It's not just that Hwang's deft writing -- with bitchy zingers such as "Your mother should've drowned you before you learned to speak" -- feel worthy of writers such as Oscar Wilde and Claire Booth Luce, it's that these delectable exchanges are enlivened and enriched by the actresses' superlative performances.
Soelistyo inhabits the character of Eng Siu-Yong, the first wife and a hardened and tradition-bound woman, with a brittleness that belies both a hidden fragility and the character's long-standing opium addiction. As the second (and most ambitious) of the wives, Eng Luan, Lim (who picked up a Tony nomination for her work in Hwang's Chinglish last season) sparks with cunning and brashness, while Hu, playing Eng Eling, the third and youngest of the wives, brings such warmth and grace to her turn that it becomes readily understandable why this is the woman whom Eng most loves.
Both the play and production stumble, however, when the action shifts from the distaff members of the Eng household. Hwang's writing becomes stolid and dull following the arrival of Reverend Baines (an underwhelming Matthew Maher), a missionary from Wales.
Moreover, once Eng, whom Watanabe plays with too-contemporary exuberance, has begun to implement changes in the household – extending to baptisms for himself and his wives, the play shifts abruptly in its style, from naturalism to something more ritualistic and Kabuki-like.
A framing device (revised from previous productions), focuses on Eng's teenage great-grandson (also played Watanabe) interviewing his grandmother Eng Ahn (Annie Q., who is marvelous in playing the character both as an elderly lady, and as a pre-teen in Eng Tieng-Bin's home) mitigates some of the whiplash theatergoers may feel during the play's final third.
Nevertheless, the combination of styles remains disorienting, leaving Golden Child feeling like a bit of a tarnished experience.