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“Oriental women,” sighs the world-weary Frenchman: “When they’re good, they’re very good, but when they’re bad, they’re Christians.” It’s not everyone who can conflate Mae West–ian suggestiveness and Western-style arrogance in a single sentence, but on the lips of rising-star diplomat Rene Gallimard, the mot seems charmingly bon, at least to the crowd of bored expats at that evening’s embassy party in Beijing. And if you know anything about M. Butterfly, you’ll recognize that the blunt biases informing Gallimard’s quip neatly sum up the tangle of issues David Henry Hwang tugs and teases at in his Tony-winning 1988 tragicomedy. Questions of sexuality and gender, Western ideas about Eastern “exoticism,” and above all the politics of power (among both people and nations) are the macrocosmic concerns at play in the Gallimardian microcosm, and in Hwang’s hands they make for pretty heady theater. Too bad the hands Arena Stage has put them in aren’t as sure.

Stephen Bogardus, the Broadway veteran playing Gallimard, isn’t the trouble, though the usually deft actor was stumbling over lines and stepping on others’ cues last Sunday night. Nor has Arena favorite Tazewell Thompson done anything especially dubious, which is saying something for a director who’s proved himself all too prone to conceptual toe-stubbing. No, the weak link here is the show’s most important one: tyro actor J. Hiroyuki Liao, a fresh-out-of-Juilliard face whose inexperience shows most glaringly in a sequence that ought to be devastating but here registers mostly as irritating—and loud.

A little context: Gallimard (a character loosely based on a real-life foreign-service officer named Bernard Boursicot, whose espionage trial caused a sensation in the ’80s) carries on a 20-year affair with the “perfect woman”—Song Liling: exquisite, deferential, devoted to the point of obsession—without realizing she’s a Chinese Communist plant who’s playing him like a fish. Or, for that matter, that she’s a he—Song is a star at the Peking Opera, where women’s roles are traditionally played by men, and he’s both man and woman enough to know that Gallimard’s sense of his own inadequacies amid the sexual and feminist turmoil of the ’60s makes him a perfect target. That’s the play’s deliciously angry irony: By its final heartbreaking scene, the blushing, bowing flower of Gallimard’s fantasy has made the powerful Westerner his bitch—his Monsieur Butterfly, so in thrall to a wholly invented passion that survival in the real world is an impossibility.

M. Butterfly inverts and subverts both the Puccini opera that inspires its title and the actual affair that inspired its events, threading together the sociopolitical specifics of a spy case set in Vietnam-era Beijing with a sophisticated meditation on the psychology behind our very human tendency to fall irretrievably in love with our illusions. Hwang writes amusingly, often movingly, and perceptively about all of the above; in an efficient sequence that links Gallimard’s guiltily adolescent sexual awakening to his first encounter with Song, for instance, he points out the essentially pornographic architecture that frames the stubbornly persistent Western construct of the shy, obedient Asian woman. And it’s scary how believable it seems when, emboldened by his “success” in the role of domineering Pinkerton to Song’s Butterfly, Gallimard brings his fantasies to the office in the form of policy proposals based in those same appalling assumptions about an Eastern “desire” to be dominated. (“Orientals will always submit to a greater force,” he confidently asserts when his superiors sound him out about a proposed American intervention in Vietnam.) Hwang’s disturbingly convincing position is that misguided cultural myths play out in the realm of international politics as surely as they do in the interpersonal domain—a notion that’s surely as relevant now to a country engaged in a war for the Middle East’s “own good” as it was in the ’80s to a country reflecting on its mistakes in an earlier Far East encounter.

Arena’s M. Butterfly does well enough by most of these ideas, and Thompson’s color-saturated but otherwise pared-down production looks terrific. Donald Eastman’s set does most of its work by staying out of the way—the pale, bare platform might be a chessboard, flat and unadorned as it is. Robert Wierzel’s lighting, by contrast, asserts itself with an expressive insistence, constantly redefining both the shape and the mood of the space with an intensely colored wash here, a crosshatched pattern there, and now and again a momentary suggestion of brutal prison architecture for good measure. Carrie Robbins’ designs are quite simply exquisite, another sumptuous and invaluable bit of supporting-player work from Arena’s first-class costume shop; Song’s kimonos alone must have cost what smaller theaters spend on a season.

Brigid Cleary brasses her way through the part of Gallimard’s wife, convincingly affecting in her distress when she realizes that her husband loathes her but otherwise oddly coarse for even an undistinguished diplomat’s partner. Terrence Currier makes a more realistic embassy denizen as Gallimard’s savvy ambassador boss, though he, like all the Westerners, seems decidedly less Gallic than, well, Texan. (Part of the reason is Hwang’s dialogue, which uses American images and idioms to make too many of its Frenchmen’s points, but Thompson might’ve thought twice about having everyone employ flat Stateside accents.) Marty Lodge and Kelly Brady are the evening’s undisputed charmers—he charmingly, forthrightly caddish as Gallimard’s boyhood friend and she delightfully frank as a young American woman whose sexual directness first fuels, then threatens, the Frenchman’s emerging sense of masculinity. And Bogardus, despite an uncertain start last Sunday, warmed up enough to make Gallimard’s confusion and delusions more pitiable than off-putting, which is as it should be.

If Liao were as subtle as he is sure of his own presence, Arena would have an unqualified hit on its hands. He’s graceful enough in the stagy, formalized movements of hands and body that Song employs to seduce both his Peking Opera patrons and Gallimard’s audience of one. And to his credit, he manages a degree of subtextual communication: You can see the calculation in Song’s eyes as he acts out Gallimard’s fantasies, along with hints of impatience, even flashes of outright rage.

But that’s not enough: If Hwang’s conclusion is going to have any weight at all, the character needs to be humanized as well, and at that Liao fails utterly. The playwright would have us believe that Song, over the course of years, develops a love for his victim that equals his hate; in a sequence that can and must be lacerating if the play is to cohere, Song visits the imprisoned Gallimard for a confrontation—call it a demand performance—that’s designed to destroy Gallimard’s self-deceptions and instead destroys the man. At Arena, the scene comes from nowhere and lands with a resounding thud, precisely because Liao hasn’t been able to muster anything other than surface style and subtextual cunning: Behind all the calculation that’s been showing through Song’s outward performance, there hasn’t been a hint of the softening you’d expect to see in a man who’s beginning to doubt and resent the sting as much as he initially resented the mark. Instead, we get a face-off scene so overdone that you half expect the strutting Liao to erupt in a shout of “Fine!” and that convulsive little Jerry Maguire move that made Tom Cruise so easy to mock.

Besides which, all that coy theatrical shuffling and posing the actor has devised for Song gets to be a little much—you’ll wonder, after an hour or so of windmilling sleeves, why he’s doing so much to draw attention to the hands Robbins’ costumes go to such lengths to conceal. Credit Liao with having done his research into Chinese operatic forms, but debit Thompson for letting a decent idea mushroom into a distraction. And dock Arena for putting so much of a big show on an unproven actor’s too-slender shoulders. M. Butterfly is a smart play, and reviving it in a year that’s seen plenty of Bush-administration demagoguery on both war policy and gay marriage was a smart-enough move—but without a sophisticated performance at its core, the show’s just another piece of agitprop. CP