David Henry Hwang’s “Yellow Face” is that rarity in theater, a pungent play of ideas with a big heart. Picaresque tale of playwright “DHH” (Hoon Lee) and his decade-long relationship with a white actor passing for Asian brings to the national discussion about race three much-needed commodities: a sense of humor a mile wide, an even-handed treatment and a hopeful, healing vision of a world that could be.
In its examination of “face” in all that concept’s meanings, the play is of a piece with Hwang’s investigations of race and identity from “FOB” through “M. Butterfly.” But the uniquely jocular tone of “Yellow Face” stems from the central Pirandellian conceit that DHH both is and is not playwright Hwang; the events depicted are variously true, inspired by truth or wholly invented. Jovial premise allows Hwang to move his story beyond autobiography’s confines and consider ethnic ambivalence on the part of Americans of every color.
Play kicks off with a brisk recap of the 1990 flap over Jonathan Pryce’s casting as “Miss Saigon’s” Eurasian lead. Hwang won notoriety in joining Actors Equity’s effort (ultimately unsuccessful) to block Pryce’s “yellow-face” turn, in response penning “Face Value,” a farcical take on color-blind casting that closed before its Gotham preem.
That’s all on the record. “Yellow Face” starts to spin off into fancy when a series of miscues causes DHH to approve Marcus G. Dahlman (Peter Scanavino) as “Face Value’s” Asian leading man sight unseen, only to discover to his horror that he has selected an actor about as Asian as Dustin Hoffman.
DHH’s face-saving effort to change actor’s name to “Marcus Gee” and persuade the media that Gee is actually a Siberian Jew, complete with atlas verifying Siberia’s Asian locale, is an act one comic high point.
That jam is averted, but thesp’s subsequent star turn in “The King and I,” which makes him the premier Asian American leading man, sends DHH ballistic and determined to force Gee to reveal his real face to the public.
Introduced early is a parallel plot concerning Hwang’s father, the first Asian-American owner of a federally chartered bank. As he’s known in the play, old-world dad HYH (Tzi Ma) genially cuts through his son’s assumptions: He adores “Miss Saigon,” for instance, as a beautiful expression of why people want to settle in America. And he has no problem with Marcus’ impersonation, since as a Shanghai youth HYH saw himself in celebrity terms: “Who cares? Maybe, in my heart, if I can be Gary Cooper or Clark Gable, then maybe — in his? — he can be Marcus Gee.”
But the real Henry Y. Hwang was accused of improprieties in connection with John Huang’s alleged Clinton administration influence peddling, a fact the playwright uses, along with the contemporaneous espionage charges against physicist Wen Ho Lee, to cast his net wider to consider the sometimes sinister cast of majority attitudes toward Asian Americans.
As these themes all vie for attention, the play starts to feel somewhat out of control, reinforced by the messiness in helmer Leigh Silverman’s shuffling of a set of chairs. Cast tends to remain onstage unless they’re executing a costume change, sometimes in character and sometimes not, and the physical staging is not always pleasing or expressive.
But Silverman elicits full-out performances of each storyline and character, starting with the remarkable Hoon Lee, equally at home with DHH’s comic bafflement and intensity in the face of injustice. Kathryn A. Layng evokes the essence of celebs like Colleen Dewhurst and Jane Krakowski as readily as she embodies Marcus’ trailer park mom. A creepily unctuous Tony Torn personifies one of Hwang’s favorite targets, the so-called objective journalist with a clear and present agenda.
And aud favorite Tzi Ma hilariously delivers HYH’s crisp home truths, later prompting tears as the exhausted, debilitated Wen Ho Lee, ending his FBI grilling with thanks to his interrogators.
Despite its ambitious scope, the play retains unity through DDH’s central journey from his initial stubborn convictions about race to a greater openness. By no means does he ever have all the answers.
“Maybe,” DHH muses, “we should take words like ‘Asian’ and ‘American,’ like ‘race’ and ‘nation’ — mess them up so bad no one has any idea what they even mean any more.” He says he can imagine such a place in his play at least, and the final image of “Yellow Face” permits us, just for a moment, to envision it.
The final Taper attraction prior to a year-long renovation effort, the production will transfer to the co-producing partner the Public Theater in Gotham later this year.