Review by Tulis McCall
This play begins with the second act. In a scene crafted with great care Eng Tieng-Bin (Greg Watanabe) and the Reverend Baines (Matthew Maher) exchange pleasantries in what is clearly Chinese and broken Chinese. It is reminiscent of David Sedaris writing about learning French in Me Talk Pretty One Day. This is a scene so simple that it reveals layers and layers of the two men. The year is 1918, and the Reverend is in the business of gathering souls for Jesus. Tieng-Bin is an extremely successful businessman who has many ties in the community as well as three wives in his household. He wants to catapult into the “modern world”. Christianity could be his ticket. Both men are aware of the power each would acquire were this conversion to happen. Pretty much the only thing standing in the way is two of the three wives. Christianity doesn’t much cotton to having more than one wife at a time.
What to do? What to do with when three minus one leaves two?
That is the story around which this play whirls, which means that the entire first act is pretty much prologue. It is told from the viewpoint of the Golden Child, the one who brings good luck, Eng Ahn (Annie Q.) who is an elder in 1968. When her grandson arrives to interview her about her life, the only way she will tell the tale is from the perspective of how Jesus came into her life.
We plod along through the introduction of her mother, Eng Siu-Yong (Julyana Soelisto) who runs the household while husband is away on business. Siu-Yong has pretty much given up on any romance and relies on her position as First Wife to safeguard her and her daughter. When not running the household she can be found on the business end of an opium pipe. That and her daughter are her only joys.
Second Wife Eng Luan (Jennifer Lim) is as brittle as an icicle and just about as appealing. She is blunt, outspoken and vindictive. She has no children of her own, is resentful of First Wife and jealous of Third Wife Eng Eling (Lesley Hu) who is the wife of sexual and romantic preference.
But Eng Eling has her own problems. She is timid and uncertain. As Third wife she has no power within the domestic trinity. As husband’s chosen one she also runs the risk of incurring the other wives’ wrath. Eling is not a woman to claim power or inflict discomfort on others, so she is in a pickle.
Naturally the choice of who to keep and who to toss out with the bath water is clear -until fate intervenes. Tieng-Bin does not get the life he imagines, but gets instead a sort of half life. The Golden Child remains alive and well, as everyone knew she would, and lives long enough to tell the tale.
There are some beautifully staged scenes here including the wives’ greeting their husband as well as the death transition scenes. Neil Patel’s set design, Matt Frey’s lighting and Anita Yavich’s costumes all serve this production beautifully. Still there is an air of removal, as if this were not really happening, as if it were an allegory. Greg Watanabe lacks the gravitas with his wives and his grandmother that he reveals with the Reverend. Lim appears to have stepped directly from her role in Ch’ing-lish for her sense of time is utterly contemporary.
And at the bottom of it is the writing that gives us a definite doorway into a culture that we Americans ignore for the most part. For that alone Hwang is to be congratulated. But the story ends up feeling like a story and the characters never have a chance to hit one out of the park because we are continually asked to focus on the details and not the meat of the story. When Tieng-Bin converts we should feel the earth shudder. It is that big of a deal.
Hwan doesn’t give us that pleasure. Too bad!
"A drama with piquant comic overtones "
Charles Isherwood for New York Times
"Engaging revival ... While not particularly deep and a bit too jokey for its own good, Hwang’s tale, inspired by his family, is well-told. Director Leigh Silverman’s polished cast and production showcase it at its best advantage.
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News
"Much like the situation it depicts, the play tries uneasily to meld Western and Eastern styles, especially in its mysticism-laden second act. But director Leigh Silverman’s well-acted, visually elegant production shows the piece certainly deserves another look.”
Frank Scheck for New York Post
"Signature’s physical production ... is first-rate, as is this exemplary and very welcome revival."
Erik Haagensen for Back Stage
External links to full reviews from popular press...