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David Henry Hwang’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated M. Butterfly is, by all reasonable measures, a perfect play. The playwright brilliantly, poetically entwines his story of wants versus needs versus desires amidst a passionate world where race, gender, class, culture and loyalty mingle together in a delicate fusion of reality and fantasy. It’s such a prickly, poignant drama dripping with ironies and art that it excites audiences with its endless possibilities and potential.
Yes, by all reasonable measures, it is a very perfect play.
But at Arena Stage, it’s a less than perfect production.
Tazewell Thompson’s version of M. Butterfly is certainly competent, and his cast is more than capable of delivering on cue. But it misses one opportunity after another.
Donald Eastman’s bare set lacks ambition and creativity — in a play that relies heavily upon fickle memories and mystique, there are no interesting choices here. Moreover, Thompson’s use of the space is frequently awkward. Also problematic is Thompson’s repeated use of a flurry of fluttering paper dropped from the rafters onto the stage area. It is a “special ” effect, and thus, should be used one time only. By the end of the night, however, we are so familiar with the device that it is no longer interesting.
Thompson’s cast runs hot and cold. Thankfully, most of his actors offer lucid interpretations and not just simplified caricatures. J. Hiroyuki Liao is a revelation as the eastern opera singer Song Liling. Liao, a recent Juilliard graduate, is graceful and light as the enigmatic eastern beauty who captures a French diplomat’s heart. It’s a stunning debut performance from this gifted, malleable actor, as well as the most rewarding aspect of the evening.
Brigid Cleary does a fine job as Helga, a diplomat’s wife trying to come to terms with life amidst the volatile streets of Beijing and Paris, while the actress Ako brings both comic relief and serious affectation to whatever multiple role she is filling. Marty Lodge lends beefy support as Gallimard’s hapless buddy Marc.
But the evening clearly rests on the shoulders of Stephen Bogardus, who portrays Rene Gallimard, the French diplomat who regales us with his sad story of the communist spy he fell in love with and how he unwittingly committed treason against his country by “keeping a native mistress. ” Bogardus seems over-rehearsed and under-enthused as the man who would rather choose delusion over the bitter truth. His Gallimard is a cardboard cut-out of a character — there is no sense of connection with who he is, where he is coming from, or what he is trying to accomplish by telling his story. It is not a portrait of a whole man, but rather fragmented pieces and parts of someone who has been hurt by destiny.
When Hwang’s play premiered in Washington in 1988, his profound politics on East/West culture and traditional gender roles in both societies were welcomed with a sense of relief that someone bothered to tackle such sensitive issues. It’s as relevant today as it was then, and M. Butterfly retains its universal appeal. It’s too bad this incarnation expresses so little imagination.
One local designer who never seems short on imagination or invention is James Kronzer. Kronzer’s revolving set for Lisa Loomer’s domestic drama, Living Out, is a remarkably detailed home fit for two very different families. Nancy and Richard Robin hire a nanny — Ana Hernandez — to care for their infant daughter, Jenna. Ana is an illegal Salvadoran immigrant who must care for her own two children as well as Jenna, and works for the Robins in hopes of bringing her son from El Salvador to the U.S. Her financial obligations keep her so busy that she barely has time for her son already living with her in the States. It’s a messy, hot-button affair that plays out with acute realism under Wendy C. Goldberg’s precise direction.
Loomer divides her smart and sassy story between the dueling responsibilities of home and career and the poignant trials and tribulations that come along with the hardships of immigrant life. Her witty script is a cocktail serving up equal parts Sex and the City with The Nanny Diaries. It’s as much about the relationships between mothers and their nannies as it is about the Anglo-Latino connection.
Joselin Reyes is outstanding as the conflicted nanny who must balance her job with raising a family, and both David Fendig and Michael Ray Escamilla offer solid interpretations as two husbands watching from the sidelines. Chandler Vinton and Socorro Santiago also shimmer in comic roles.
Holly Twyford’s turn as Nancy Robin, the attorney-mom armed with a cell phone and a $200 “Nanny Cam, ” is a bit overbearing at times, as Twyford seems uncomfortable in such moderate skin. Twyford may be a touch too ruffled, too nuanced to be so usual. Then again, Nancy is written with much human flaw, and it is left to Twyford to bring her compassion into sharp focus.
A provocative, thoroughly enjoyable evening of bright comedy and bold, questioning drama, Living Out doesn’t attempt to serve up easy answers. Loomer drives home her final point that, in reality, those who ultimately suffer from these ongoing domestic dilemmas are the children, forever caught up in small wars with those living in, and bigger wars with those living out.