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Yellow Face

David Henry Hwang's self-referential play is an uneasy, complicated, and heavily convoluted mix of satire and drama. logo
Hoon Lee and Francis Jue in Yellow Face
(© Joan Marcus)
By the end of David Henry Hwang's self-referential -- indeed, confessional -- Yellow Face, which is getting its New York premiere at the Public Theatre, he proves he has something worth saying about racial identity and racial tolerance. However, the long-winded fashion -- capped by a surprise ending -- in which he eventually asserts that national purity is a matter of welcome impurity is so calamitous that you want to grab him by the lapels and urge him to go back to the drawing-board for extensive revisions.

Or maybe it's Hoon Lee, the actor playing a version of Hwang, at whom you're ready to vent your spleen. That's because Lee is the easy target right in front of you as the often rightly embarrassed character called DHH. He has a story to tell, but it's an uneasy, complicated, and heavily convoluted mix of satire and drama.

It all starts -- as DHH tells the captive audience -- with his protest of the casting of white actor Jonathan Pryce to play the Eurasian Engineer in the 1991 Broadway production Miss Saigon. So when he wrote his 1993 farce Face Value -- which was inspired by the Pryce contretemps and closed before even officially opening on Broadway -- he was determined to sign a genuine Asian actor for his angry send-up. Instead, Hwang fooled himself into hiring a thespian, here called Marcus G. Dahlman (Noah Bean), whom he believes is Eurasian, but who very much (and rather obviously) isn't.

The plan backfires in more ways than one, since DHH not only has to endure the shame of his hoodwinking but also has to wrangle with the eventually pink-slipped Marcus' boasts about attempting to remake himself as a true Asian -- a quest that eventually leads him to go to China to find his true self.

Adding insult to mortification, DHH's resulting downward spiral leads him to accept the invitation of his American-Dream-loving father HYH (Francis Jue) to join the board of the California bank he runs. After some time has gone by, DHH's board-of-directors tenure plops him in hot water with the U.S. government worrying about money coming into the country for disruptive purposes. His plight, though, is hardly as worrisome as his father's. Between dealing with Marcus, who has his own issues, Dad's woes, and then bringing into this formidable maelstrom the nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee (Jue again), who was wrongly accused of being a spy, DHH slowly comes to a reconciliation with himself.

Granted, it's admirable and fitting for Hwang to stew over the proper and improper ways to combat the prejudice still rampant in a country he wants to believe in as much as his father does. Nevertheless, for much of his new piece -- the title of which refers to actors appearing in figurative yellow face (as they once literally appeared in black face) -- he goes about his business with an uncertain grip. He calls Yellow Face a "stage mockumentary," by which he means he's made his play a series of spliced excerpts from actual scenes, newspaper accounts, play reviews, hearings testimony -- often having his cast impersonate real-life figures like actors B. D. Wong, Jane Krakowski, and Lily Tomlin, producer Stuart Ostrow, and even an "anonymous" New York Times reporter -- all of which unfold on David Korins' minimalist riser-and-straight-backed chairs set.

Unfortunately, the majority of these re-spun dramatizations aren't amusing in the least. Indeed, as directed by Leigh Silverman and impersonated by Jue, Lucas Caleb Rooney, Julienne Hanzelka Kim, Anthony Torn, and worst offender Kathryn A. Layng (who's Hwang's wife), these characterizations are worse than unfunny. In a play supposedly excoriating stereotypes and stereotyping, the players push the stereotype button whenever they can. True, there are flashes -- especially in the late-in-the-play scenes of the Wen Ho Lee grilling by the reporter -- of the value Yellow Face might have as a play with race-issue-examining merit. But, in the end, too much of it is merely meretricious.

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