Slow Your Role: After being cast in an Asian part, a white actor gets too big for his britches.
Slow Your Role: After being cast in an Asian part, a white actor gets too big for his britches.

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Comedy of mortification morphs into dramedy of mortality in Yellow Face at Theater J, with the play deepening as the laughs fade.

David Henry Hwang, whose play M. Butterfly is a fictionalized true story of a man deceived by appearances, puts himself at the center of a largely autobiographical evening in which appearances and deception prove critical. The protagonist (listed in the program as DHH) is a playwright who has written a play called M Butterfly. His bio parallels that of the author, especially with regard to his activist role in the real-life brouhaha over the casting of white Brit actor Jonathan Pryce as the Eurasian Engineer (aka Tran Van Dinh) in Miss Saigon.Things, it need hardly be noted, are not quite what they seem.

The real Hwang led the unsuccessful fight against Pryce’s Broadway casting in 1991, and the author quotes himself liberally as his onstage avatar DHH (Stan Kang) rails about the grotesqueries of Charlie Chan, Mr. Moto, and Fu Manchu, and the indignity of another white performer being allowed to don bronzer and eye prostheses to play a plum Asian role. Hwang, though, is almost immediately alarmed both at the thought of being a poster child for political correctness and for telling other artists what they can do with their art—discomfort that grows when he later finds himself in equivalently dicey territory. Because it would be illegal for producers to ask an actor’s race as a condition of employment, DHH unwittingly casts a Caucasian (Rafael Untalan) in an Asian part in his next play, then watches as the white actor uses the ambiguity of the situation not just to embrace and be embraced by the Asian-American community, but to eclipse DHH as an activist for Asian causes.

When Hwang’s ailing father (Al Twanmo) gets subpoenaed by the Senate during a xenophobic 1990s Chinese banking probe, the evening takes a significantly darker turn—and finally acquires a villain of sorts in a New York Times reporter referred to both in the program and in the play as “Name Withheld on Advice of Counsel” (Brandon McCoy). But that’s after intermission. In its early going, the play is more a behind-the-scenes farce, all bright surfaces and skittering wordplay, briskly explaining and then undercutting cultural casting arguments while mining satirical gold in Hwang’s growing distress over his personal entanglement in a yellow-face tradition he despises. If the evening ultimately seems like nicely observed sparring rather than an integrated narrative, the verbal jabs and parries are at least articulated with the sharpness they warrant.

Natsu Onoda Power’s Theater J production (enlivened by Jared Mezzocchi’s near-constant video projections) has been somewhat restaged since its official opening to accommodate an injured performer’s unexpected relegation to a wheelchair. Although there was a bit of residual tenuousness to a few moments at the weekend matinee I attended, that didn’t keep the production from cleverly underlining ironies with a gamely versatile cast offering up not just sharp characterizations, but amusing and on-point casting anomalies including a black Sen. John Kerry, a male Margaret Cho, and an Asian Lily Tomlin.