The clash of East versus West – politically, economically, sexually, and philosophically – still makes a loud noise in Julie Taymor’s intelligent if often frustrating revival of David Henry Hwang’s Tony Award-winning 1988 drama, “M. Butterfly,” now at the Cort Theatre.
There are plenty of other noises to be heard inside the theatre as well, including gasps of horror at the play’s seemingly inevitable denouement and murmurs of disbelief. The latter sounds, however, derive not only from audience reaction to the mind-blowing plot (which is based on a true story), but by the casting of the handsome, suave Clive Owen as Rene Gallimard, a French diplomat whom is described by himself, and many others around him, as the ultimate loser. Mon dieu! What were they thinking?
To his infinite credit, Owen does everything in his power (other than make himself look even remotely unattractive) to overcome this central bit of miscasting. The actor, in only his second appearance on Broadway, serves up a truly brave, impassioned performance as Gallimard, a lover of the opera “Madama Butterfly,” who falls for a Chinese opera singer named Song Liling (an impressive if not overly feminine Jin Ha) after hearing her performing that opera’s death scene. Gallimard believes that Song is a woman, is then told he’s a man, and yet despite considerable evidence (physical and otherwise) to the contrary, he spends years in a supposedly heterosexual affair with Song, whom he calls his “ideal woman.”
Arguably, even if the play’s conceit is that we can all convince ourselves of anything we need to in order to be happy (Gallimard is equally blind to the fact that Song has been recruited as a spy) – and that Western men’s view of Eastern women make them even more receptive to the fabrication Song creates -- the fact remains this provocative piece can’t fully work when you’re watching a man who could have any woman he wants, and who betrays not even the slightest hint of a confused sexual preference.
Still, to reduce Hwang’s play to just this star-crossed “romance” is to fail to do it justice; there are also trenchant observations about France’s and America’s complete miscalculations about communist China and Vietnam (much of the play takes place in the 1960s), as well as the roles of men and women in both Asian and Western societies. Just witness the all too typical behaviors of Gallimard’s older, proper wife Agnes (a fine Enid Graham), his boorish best friend (a dutifully obnoxious Murray Bartlett), his pompous boss (the excellent Michael Countryman), or Renee, the all-too-free spirited girl Rene meets at a party (the lovely Clea Alsip). Conversely, the strongest characters on stage are Song and Comrade Chin (a riveting Celeste Den), the female officer who recruits Song to use his power over Gallimard to learn diplomatic secrets.
As might be expected, Taymor adds some unusual visual elements to the production; primarily the clever use of ever-changing painted screens (by set designer Paul Steiberg), And she and choreographer Ma Cong stage the opera and dance sequences with aplomb (all nicely costumed by Constance Hoffman). Still, the production feels a bit skimpy, and one can’t help but wonder what Taymor would do with a larger budget.
Try as everyone might, this “Butterfly” never really soars; but it rarely crashes to the ground either.
By Brian Scott Lipton
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Clive Owen, Jin Ha, Clea Alsip, Murray Bartlett, Michael Countryman, Celeste Den, Jess Fry, Enid Graham, Thomas Michael Hammond, Cole Horibe, Jason Ignacio, Kristen Faith Oei, Erica Sweany, John Leonard Thompson, Erica Wong
Preview Open/ Preview Close Dates
Preview Opening 10/7/2017
138 West 48th Street
New York, NY 10036