Births, deaths, ghosts, opium, foot-binding, family intrigue and culture clash, not to mention a ride in a New York taxicab, are among the subjects of David Henry Hwang’s new play, “Golden Child.” So how can the play be so flat?
Apparently concerned that audiences might not understand what’s going on, Hwang spells out his characters and their relationships with too many words spoken too slowly. His quest for clarity has the support of director James Lapine and most of the cast.
The play begins as the taxi passenger, young Andrew Kwong (Stan Egi), is heading off on a business trip while his pregnant wife stays home. He is confronted by the phrase “You must be born again” written dozens of times (once would have been enough) all over the vehicle’s interior. The words inspire Andrew to conjure the image of his grandmother (Julyana Soelistyo), a fundamentalist Christian and the family historian. Joining him in the cab, she begins to recount the story of her father’s conversion to Christianity.
The stage’s backdrop is pulled aside to reveal Tony Straiges’ handsome construction of the family home in southeast China, circa 1918. Great-grandfather Eng (also played by Egi), who runs the family business in Manila, has come home full of Western ideas about progress (no more foot-binding!) and individualism. Eng asks his three wives to join him in Christianity, a request that sets their internal power struggle spiraling out of control.
The relationship of the three wives bogs down the play. The first wife, much older than her husband, rules the household, while the ambitious second wife seeks to squash the beautiful young third wife. The latter is either an innocent or the cleverest of the three.
This is pretty straightforward soap opera, but Hwang wants to make sure we get it, spelling out things we understand even before the dot-connecting. The pace does pick up at the beginning of the second act, especially in a well-acted scene between Egi and John Christopher Jones as a missionary. But then the conflict between Christianity and ancestor-worship gets the same step-by-step treatment as the struggle among the wives did earlier. Lost in all this is a charming performance by Soelistyo as the grandmother. Liana Pai, as the third wife, also manages some lighter moments amid the plodding.