M. Butterfly begins with Gallimard's imprisonment and unveils the story through flashbacks, rapid-fire scenes, narration from the lead characters, and authentic Asian dance. The action is quick, visually stirring, and obviously difficult to stage. Without expert acting and direction, audiences could easily become confused.
But everything emerges crystal clear in the Off-Broadway's rendition (better than the Broadway one I first viewed, starring John Lithgow). Jay Tompkins's magnificent spiral set and inventive lighting mightily enhance the story line, and John R. Briggs's crisp, intelligent direction is well-suited to the script . Brian C. Smith is effective as Gallimard, his halting sentences properly conveying an insecure man who seeks pleasure and order in his life but is unsure how to obtain either. Because Smith is more attractive (not intended by Hwang) than Lithgow, the affairs he initiates possess even more appeal, yet at the same time he manages to evoke a suitable dose of pity. As Song Liling, M. Wong successfully builds two very different characters, just as Dustin Hoffman did in the film Tootsie. His alluring female is no drag queen; she whispers and titters modestly, convincingly employing the full range of subtle tricks beautiful women use on their men. But when the play calls for Wong's abrupt change into the male spy, he becomes shallow and harsh, even sadistically dominant, a feat he performs most effectively.
Supporting roles such as those of Tom Wahl as the debonair Marc and Judith Townsend as Gallimard's tormented wife Helga are so finely drawn and truthfully acted they raise the production to even higher levels. Quite frankly, you couldn't make a better choice for an enthralling evening of theater.
Whereas Hwang is a natural playwright, injecting excitement, significance, and constant action into his tale, Chaim Potok is no such animal, a fact almost immediately evident in The Play of Lights, Potok's first full-length drama, being given its world premiere by the Hollywood Performing Arts Professional Repertory Theatre. Author of such artful novels about the Jewish experience as The Chosen, Potok hasn't mastered the art of writing for the theater, which is not surprising. Only a few rare souls, such as Oscar Wilde and Jean-Paul Sartre, succeeded in writing for both page and stage. Between covers, Potok's story might work very well: A young rabbinical student cannot live with the fact that his father helped create the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Descriptive passages about the beauty of Kyoto and Japanese art have a much greater impact when you have all the time in the world to savor the words. But when prosaic writing communicates an intellectual rather than a dramatic conflict in play form, boredom can quickly take hold.
Ed Schiff does his best to move the static script forward, but he is constrained by the material. In addition, his actors merely show emotions rather than embodying them. Only Roger Martin (understudying Ed Schiff's role as the father on the night I attended) displayed any skill or honesty. The entire effort seemed forced, contrived, and for the most part amateurish. Potok's words are sometimes splendid, but he knows as little about playwriting as the cast knows about acting.
While the offering is certainly not theater at its worst, a few beers at the local bar, eyeing the girls (or boys) and weaving your own fantasies, might be a better choice.