At the beginning of Golden Child, a 1996 drama by David Henry Hwang, a grandmother and grandson are arguing: She wants to regale him with Bible stories, and he wants to learn his own family history. As it turns out, though, the two things aren’t so different. The play—directed by Leigh Silverman, running as part of the Signature Theatre’s season devoted to Hwang’s work—takes us back to the grandmother’s childhood, relating a saga of generational and religious conflict in early-20th-century China, with most of the qualities of a New Testament tale, both good and bad. There’s moral debate, a cast of schematically drawn characters, and scenes of physical agony—alongside some rather un-Biblical elements, like an endless stream of sitcom-style one-liners, with extra-long pauses for laughs.
Greg Watanabe (who doubles as an oversized grandson in the opening bit) plays a successful Chinese businessman returning to his three wives after a stint in the Philippines. While there, he developed a taste for all things modern and Western, like waffles, and phonographs, and Jesus. He’s also wistful for that most shocking of European conventions—monogamy, which he pines for, even while trying to coax all three brides into baptism. His spouses have varying responses to this identity change: First Wife (Julyana Soelistyo), unable to cope, eats opium and expires, later returning, swathed in gray chiffon, to haunt the tortured Third Wife (Lesley Hu), who can’t choose between love for her husband and loyalty to religious tradition.
Meanwhile, Second Wife, played with appropriate conniving by Jennifer Lim, embraces the new order, hoping to be promoted to Only Wife. Observing the action are First Wife’s daughter—representing a new generation, with unbound feet—who will become the grandmother of the present day; and Matthew Maher, as an endearingly bumbling missionary, speaking broken Chinese.
Between bouts of marital squabbling, we’re treated to wisecracks from the wives, which somehow never get funny (sample comeback: “If you can’t live with dishonesty, you have no business calling yourself a woman”). The overall effect is sort of family-fable-meets-Real Housewives of Fukien Province—a combination that never quite gels. The performers are talented, and Silverman moves the action along gracefully. But with so many Hwang plays to choose from, why did this one need revival? Like the less-than-welcome ghost of First Wife, Golden Child might be better off not resurrected.