The Spying Game

Occasionally I'll have a few nighttime beers in a bar on South Beach. It's a place filled mostly with locals and European tourists, the large majority of them men. Every once in a while a tall, Spandex-wrapped blonde will jiggle her way through the crowd, and all eyes turn toward her in hope and extreme need. The men will talk to each other hoarsely. "You know what I'd do," they'll boast. "She'll be crying for mercy." Then they will invariably discuss how they would dominate her, control her, make her fulfill their desires. For a moment in their minds, she becomes a passive plaything, craving what they have to offer, willing to tolerate drunkenness, abuse, anything A just because they are men and she is a woman.

Yet if you look closely, you can see it is she who holds her head high and aloof. She who brushes off their offers and leaves alone. The only thing the men own after she exits is this unrelenting fantasy of a beautiful woman who comes into their lives and turns out to be a happy, horny slave.

No type of female seems to inspire this type of fantasy more in Western men than an Asian, and playwright David Henry Hwang uses that phenomenon brilliantly and sharply in his Tony Award-winning work about East versus West and man versus woman, M. Butterfly, currently enjoying a stunning production by Brian C. Smith's Off-Broadway Theatre, starring Smith himself. Hwang's basic contention is that the only perfect woman for a man has to be a woman created by a man. No true, breathing, living lady could be the total geisha for the primal male wet dream of control.

Hwang began his great drama after reading the true story of a French diplomat, Bernard Bouriscot, jailed for espionage after carrying on a twenty-year affair with a beautiful Communist Chinese actress and providing her with classified information. The story would not have been exceptional but for one twist. The actress was in fact an actor, and Bouriscot continued to deny he ever knew that fact because he never saw her naked. "I thought she was very modest," he said, quoted by Hwang in the playbill. "I thought it was a Chinese custom." But Hwang points out in his author's notes that Asian men know this is not true, that Asian women are "no more shy of their lovers than women from the West." Therefore, he hypothesizes that the diplomat embraced the stereotyped view of Asians as bowing, pliant flowers who are prone to fall in love not with a person but an ideal archetype.

In Hwang's play, Bouriscot's name has been changed to Rene Gallimard so the author can take some liberties and build a fictional character to fit the tragedy. Gallimard starts out as a passive, ugly man, overshadowed in school by his suave best friend Marc, marrying an unattractive older woman because she has good connections and he doesn't believe he can do any better. Yet his private vision of a perfect relationship stems from his favorite opera, Madame Butterfly, in which a delectable Japanese blossom sacrifices everything for the Western male devil who has stolen her heart and cruelly abused her.

When Gallimard is posted to China, his secret dreams come true one night in the person of Song Liling, a petite Oriental doll who sings an aria from Madame Butterfly at a diplomatic party. Song seems to be smitten by Gallimard, and the Frenchman can't believe his good fortune. They embark on an odd affair, in which Song first teases him, then submits inch by inch, but ultimately refuses to remove her clothes and for a long while prefers to "pleasure him" with her mouth and hands. The once-wimpy diplomat undergoes dramatic changes. His newly found masculinity even impresses his boss, who promotes him. Gallimard's testosterone climbs to such a level that he almost gleefully tortures Song by giving and then withdrawing his love. He indulges in an "extra-extramarital" affair with a young Western nymph also named Renee, but in the end drops her because she is too aggressive about sex. Gallimard wants submission, not easy access. And the more pain Song feels, the larger his ego grows.

Of course, we eventually discover that Song, like the sexy blonde in the Beach bar, is simply playing to a male illusion and is actually pulling all the strings. Gallimard also discovers A too late A that he is the butterfly, not she. But still he longs for the past, even when he knows the truth. He prefers to live with the dream of a perfect woman rather than face the reality of his humiliating downfall.

Hwang also uses the plot as a metaphor for how the West views Asia, and why, for example, America was so shocked that the Vietnamese fought with such ardor instead of simply giving in. According to the author, Western nations see themselves as masculine, while Eastern societies are feminine and desirous of being subdued and controlled. Not so, says Hwang (and a host of Far East countries who snicker behind our beefy backs as their trade surpluses skyrocket).

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.

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