Broadway Review: Clive Owen in ‘M. Butterfly’

Clive Owen stars in Julie Taymor’s gorgeous if oddly unmoving revival of David Henry Hwang’s 1988 drama.

Clive Owen returns to Broadway in David Henry Hwang’s “M. Butterfly,” a revised version of the 1988 drama about a French diplomat who was caught in a scandalous affair with a Chinese opera star, went to prison for treason, and became a public laughingstock for falling in love with a latter-day Madam Butterfly who humiliated and betrayed him.

If the stagecraft makes you swoon, then this must be a Julie Taymor production, with prodigious contributions from Paul Steinberg (sets), Constance Hoffman (costumes), Will Pickens (sound), and especially from Donald Holder (lighting).

In 1960s China, Beijing is culturally and politically trapped between ancient and modern times. Giant sliding screens depict scenes and slogans commemorating Mao Zedong’s rule over the Communist People’s Republic of China. Politically removed from Mao’s Great Leap Forward, extravagantly masked and costumed actors perform scenes from classical Chinese opera. Stylistically, it’s all a dazzling confusion.

Rene Gallimard, the surprisingly unworldly French diplomat played by Owen, attends a garden party and is smitten by an opera singer who entertains the guests by singing an aria from “Madam Butterfly.” “I wanted to take her in my arms” he says, “so delicate, even I could protect her, take her home, pamper her, ease her pain.” She is his ideal woman, even when he discovers that she doesn’t really exist.

John Lithgow, who played Gallimard in the original Broadway production, seemed both sexually repressed and socially awkward enough to fall for Song Liling (played in that production by BD Wong) without realizing that this delicate creature was a man. “How could he not have known, for 20 years?” one scandalized gossiper wants to know.  Here, Owen seems more deeply haunted by Gallimard’s forbidden love for Song Liling (a lithe Jin Ha in this production); but his earnest attempt to play the character’s sexual uncertainty is ultimately unconvincing.

Taymor has shielded Hwang’s poetry from being overwhelmed by the sheer theatricality of the story, which was based on a real-life case.  In one of the playwright’s many ravishing lines, Gallimard embraces his fate because “I have known — and been loved by — the perfect woman.” By fortifying the scenes that frame the love story, Taymor has also strengthened the political undercurrents of the play.

For all its romanticism, the love affair also served as a smokescreen for a heartless act of Cold War political betrayal that destroyed Gallimard’s career and jailed him for treason.  But even as he languishes in prison, where tout le monde mocks him as “a national embarrassment … a laughing-stock … a fool,” he still considers himself a happy man for having loved someone with all his foolish, broken heart.

Broadway Review: ‘M. Butterfly
Court Theater; 1070 seats; $139 top. Opened Oct. 26, 2017. Reviewed, Oct. 24. Running time: 2 HOURS, 20 MIN.

Production
A presentation by Nelle Nugent, Steve Traxler, Kenneth Teaton, Benjamin Feldman, Doug Morris, Gilad-Rogowsky, Jim Kierstead; Hunter Arnold, Spencer Ross, and Jam Theatricals, in association with Alex L.L. Ritchie, Kades-Reese, Storyboard Entertainment, and Jeffrey Sosnick, of a play in two acts by David Henry Hwang, originally produced by Stuart Ostrow and David Geffen.

Creative
Directed by Julie Taymor. Sets, Paul Steinberg; costumes, Constance Hoffman; lighting, Donald Holder; sound, Will Pickens; hair & wigs, Dave Bova; choreography, Ma Cong; original music & sound, Elliot Goldenthal; production stage manager, Robert Bennett.

Cast
Clive Owen, Jin Ha, Murray Bartlett, Michael Countryman, Enid Graham, Clea Alsip, Celeste Den.