Both before and after sweeping the major theater awards in 1988 with “M. Butterfly,” David Henry Hwang has explored issues of human identity, racial and otherwise, along with related ideas about the impact of art on reality — and vice versa. But since when did he turn into such a funny guy? Although he’s working with the same themes in “Yellow Face,” there is much wry, even self-effacing humor in this maybe-true (and maybe-false) play about what happened (or didn’t) to the playwright after he made a spectacle of himself protesting the casting of a white actor in “Miss Saigon.”
Everything about this clean-as-a-whistle production asks to be taken at “face” value. Helmed by Leigh Silverman on David Korins’ bare stage that’s artfully lit by Donald Holder, and performed with utter clarity by a tight ensemble cast, this engaging play purports to give the real dish on what transpired after Hwang galvanized the worldwide theater community over the Broadway casting of Jonathan Pryce in the Eurasian role he originated in London.
As played with well-measured increments of pride, defiance and dawning disillusion by the reliably subtle Hoon Lee, the playwright becomes swept up in his own rhetoric demanding the casting of Asian actors in Asian roles. Even after causing an international incident, he seems slow to understand the contradiction in demanding ethnocentric casting in an industry still feeling its way around the concept of color-blind hiring practices, onstage and off.
That wicked irony gets across to him once he casts — through a fatal misunderstanding brought about by panic — a lily-white actor in the lead Asian role in one of his own plays. At this point, “Yellow Face” turns into a delicious comedy of errors, as DHH envisions the hooting headlines (“Leader of ‘Miss Saigon’ Protest Casts White Guy as Asian — By Mistake!”) and decides to keep up the sham.
That opens up another can of ethical worms, as he clumsily tries to manipulate Marcus G. Dahlman (Noah Bean) into going along with the pretense that he’s Chinese — from Siberia, no less, according to Hwang’s contorted interpretation of the actor’s true Russian Jewish origins.
With Lee sweating it out as the duplicitous DHH and Bean playing the angelic Marcus with every bit of the sweetness he deserves, the coming-out scene of the pseudo-Asian “Marcus Gee” is side-splitting. Seriously so because Marcus has such genuine respect and admiration for Asians and their culture that he gradually begins to live with the false “face” he has taken on — even after the ill-fated play he’s in (“M. Turkey,” the Boston Phoenix calls it) closes in disgrace.
Meanwhile, in a comfortable California suburb, DHH’s banker father, HYH (Francis Jue), rattles his son with his own homespun notions about identity. While DHH the playwright makes a political case (without really believing it) that what a person looks like “on the outside” doesn’t really matter on any existential level, his immigrant father actually believes in — and lives — the American ideal of a faceless society of equals. In his own way, he’s as sweet and genuine as Marcus, and in Jue’s exuberant performance, he’s just as irresistible a character.
But just to make sure we’re still paying attention, Hwang the scribe casually drops yet another bombshell about the elusive nature of identity in a nation that keeps shifting its ideological position on the matter — especially in times of war. “I was planning to maintain the ambiguity about reality versus fiction through the end of the play,” his stage character announces, with a disingenuous smile that suggests that this ambiguity will not be resolved even then — if ever.