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America’s sense of humor, I used to think, was its saving grace. We might throw our weight around recklessly as a nation, but at least we could laugh at ourselves. That was before the collision of global media marketing and the right-wing hegemony knocked out our sense of humor and left it for dead in the sandbox of nostalgia. The last few decades have been pretty drought-stricken in the laugh department. So I expected little as I squared my ever-slumping shoulders to face the week’s roster of openings: a satire on political correctness by David Henry Hwang, an 1898 curio dug out of Mark Twain’s literary leavings, and a play by an unknown with an enigmatic title. Doesn’t exactly sound like a pile of smiles, does it? Well, it fooled me. Having started out glum, I spent most of my theatergoing time grinning in slightly stunned delight.
The word “glum” above is an understatement: I walked into David Henry Hwang’s Yellow Face feeling active dread. Fond as my memories of Hwang’s best work are, the last few decades have seen him become American playwriting’s symbol of socially approved preachiness. His script for Tarzan alone was enough to sink a lesser artist’s reputation: Once you’ve made a pair of gorillas discuss their human foster son’s problems in the diction of an after-school special, what hope can there be?
Plenty, it turns out. Charming, touching, and cunningly organized as well as funny, Yellow Face constitutes Hwang’s comic atonement for his years as a political corrector. Its main satirical target is a self-important playwright called . . . David Henry Hwang. Granted, this has its own self-important ring; as Max Beerbohm said of Ibsen’s last plays, “It is an instance of his egotism that he has reserved his fiercest kick for himself.” But comparing a playwright to Ibsen, even as an egotist, amounts to a high compliment. And Yellow Face has an Ibsenite reach and stature far beyond any issues of Hwang’s self-image. Starting from his emergence as a leader in the Asian-American theater community’s battle with Cameron Mackintosh over Jonathan Pryce’s appearance in Miss Saigon, Yellow Face tracks the deepening disaffection of its author-hero (Hoon Lee) with the rigidities of ethnic-based casting, leading to a crazy reversal of positions when he promotes an actor of doubtful ethnicity (Noah Bean) who then begins to outdo him as an anti-discrimination spokesman. Added complications come from nonartistic realms: Federal investigators target Hwang’s banker father (Francis Jue) because of his bank’s troubling transactions with the Chinese government; allegations of espionage against the Chinese American physicist Wen Ho Lee make news headlines; the eagerness of a single New York Times reporter (Anthony Torn) to cover both stories starts to look troublingly like bias to the already beleaguered playwright.
Hwang, in other words, has learned from bitter experiences where discrimination matters and where it doesn’t, and has combined the two in a mordant, reflective comedy that works not only as a personal summation but as a pattern for us all as we pick our cautious way through the thicket of claims and counterclaims that marks America’s transactions with its minorities. Generous enough to give the Times reporter (drolly identified in the program as “Name Withheld on Advice of Counsel”) a shiny moment of non-bias, Hwang has also been sly enough to build a Christmas-cracker trick into his play that explodes this and many other “sincere” moments when, at the end, he pulls the string. Leigh Silverman’s playful, quick-paced production, easily catching Hwang’s many shifts of tone, supports his underlying thesis by assigning its multiple roles with an airy disregard for race and gender. Lee’s wonderfully hapless Hwang deepens from the deadpan bewilderment of his early scenes to a near-tragic condition at the end. Jue, movingly anchored as the hero’s maddening yet lovable father, shows himself at the same time to be one of our best scampish comedians in his many small roles, including a note-perfect cartoon of the late Bernard B. Jacobs in highest dudgeon.
Speaking of scamps, the British director Michael Blakemore apparently loves them as much as I do. The rave reviews of
Is He Dead? have mostly attributed its success to Norbert Leo Butz, who plays the lead. Butz, a fine outrageous clown, misses none of the droll opportunities built into the lead role of a poverty-stricken painter who fakes his own death and then, while disguised as his widowed sister, watches the price of his canvases skyrocket. But it’s Blakemore’s astute staging, and the deliciously mismatched gang of cutups he’s cast, that keeps Mark Twain’s jovially antique comedy rolling from laugh to laugh. Besides Butz, swishing his crinolines as he chomps on a cigar, you have on one side Michael McGrath and Tom Alan Robbins as his gleefully bustling co-conspirators, and on the other, Patricia Connolly and Marylouise Burke as sympathetic spinsters doddering in harmony, and, scurrying among them, Jenn Gambatese and Bridget Regan, two sisterly ingenues far more fiery than ingenuous. For topping, add a black-wigged Byron Jennings, periodically slicing through the frenzy as a sort of Byronic Snidely Whiplash. And even he doesn’t win the show’s biggest laugh. That honor falls to David Pittu’s giddy entrance in the first of his four small roles. Or it would, if the collective howl at the rise of the second-act curtain, as the audience spies Peter J. Davison’s set, didn’t top even Pittu’s drollery.
Nobody would call Twain’s long-unproduced 1898 play a masterpiece, even with David Ives’s streamlining: It recapitulates familiar motifs and even more wheezily familiar jokes. But it infuses them with Twain’s gently mocking spirit, which Ives’s emendations never besmirch. Blakemore has successfully awakened that spirit; Butz and the jovial crew surrounding him embody it. No grandiose claims—just good humor, good energy, and a sweet underpinning of rue.
That’s the bright secret of Is He Dead? in a nutshell.
You could view the history of the American comic spirit’s attenuation in a nutshell by going straight from
Is He Dead? to Doris to Darlene. Young Jordan Harrison’s tiny trifle assembles three interlocking anecdotes of romantic disaster set in three different eras, also sweetly underpinned with rue. But Harrison scarcely bothers to tell his stories, dressing them in cursory, often doubtful details that leave you feeling shortchanged. The empty cleverness of their crisscross seems his main interest. No wonder Les Waters’s production, with its jokey gender-blind casting, feels oddly centerless as the fragmented scenes whizz on- and offstage on the tracks and turntables of Takeshi Kata’s sleekly barren set. Harrison does have two strong assets: The lesser is his gentle but distinctive comic sense, which keeps you smiling while you wait for the play he hasn’t written; the purest gold in his vault, however, comes from a trio of delicately realized, powerfully rooted performances by Laura Heisler, Tom Nelis, and especially de’Adre Aziza, whose smile has a sweeter savor than any candy you’ll taste this Christmas.