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You can’t blame a playwright for wanting to regroup.xxxxxxx David Henry Hwang, a promising newcomer in 1979 when his written-in-college comedy, FOB (Fresh off the Boat), was produced off-Broadway by Joe Papp, and a major success in 1988 when his cross-dressing M. Butterfly took Broadway by storm, has been experiencing a career lull of late. An explorer of big issues, Hwang has generally plunged headlong into controversial waters, fascinated by such topics as Christian fundamentalism (Family Devotions), cross-cultural casting (Face Value), and American xenophobia (the film Golden Gate). Audiences, however, have proved less enthralled.

So, like many aging tyros (he was 29 when M. Butterfly began its pre-Broadway tryout at the National), Hwang has opted in midcareer to seek inspiration in personal concerns, family traditions, and questions of religion. Golden Child, a satirical dramedy about his grandmother’s Chinese upbringing in the home of her father and his three wives, is the amusing but shallow result. Who’d have guessed that, looking inward, D.H. Hwang would discover the soul of A.R. Gurney?

Golden Child begins in the bedroom of an authorial stand-in named Andrew, who is awakened by the ghost of his grandmother, Ahn. She has come, she says, to remind him of his obligations to his ancestors as he looks forward to impending fatherhood. Placing a robe around his shoulders, Ahn sweeps Andrew (or at any rate, his spirit) back to her own childhood in a remote area of China, where her businessman father, Tieng-Bin, is returning from three years in the Philippines to a household veering toward anarchy.

Tradition dictates that caustic First Wife Siu-Yong should be riding herd…with whips if necessary. But the pranks of her rambunctious daughter (Ahn), and constant feuding between scheming Second Wife Luan and sexy Third Wife Eling have diminished her control. All look forward to the stability that will come with hubby’s return, but his new, Western notions about the sanctity of the individual and the powerlessness of dead ancestors are hardly calming influences. Further, his friendship with a Welsh missionary who aims to convert the household to Christianity is a clear threat. As quips fly and compliments get wielded as weapons, no one ever loses sight of the fact that in a Christian home, two of these wives will have to go. Much strategizing and back-stabbing later, East meets West and there’s hell to pay.

Just as in a Gurney delineation of the channels of power in WASP families, the first half of the evening is devoted to establishing everyone’s relative position, a task Hwang accomplishes mostly through stereotyping. Tieng-Bin’s first and second wives are dragon ladies of differing persuasions—the former a stately, domineering battle-ax played sardonically by Tsai Chin, the latter a calculating, avaricious bitch played ferociously by Midori Nakamura. Because both characters are fond of fortune-cookie sloganeering, Hwang is able to fill the air between them with one-liners on everything from foot-binding (“No one ever said that feminine beauty was pretty”), to Chinese traditions (“Thank heaven for duty; without it we would be forced to think for ourselves”), to the strength of feminine wiles (“It is so easy to manipulate a man; call him your master, and he’s your slave for life”). By contrast, third wife Eling (Liana Pai), who is her husband’s one true love, is a decorative concubine, sweet, pliant, and comparatively silent, the sort of creature to whom the appellation “lotus blossom” is usually applied.

Tieng-Bin, played with a sort of clueless charm by Stan Egi (who also plays Andrew in the evening’s framing device), is an interloper from King and I country—an authoritarian who recognizes advantages in Western ideas but is hesitant about throwing tradition to the winds. If the evening has a pivotal moment, it’s Tieng-Bin’s almost euphoric realization that the West’s emphasis on the primacy of the individual offers him freedom from nearly all his responsibilities. He’s way too tradition-bound to embrace that freedom fully, but he sees the possibilities.

Reverend Baines (John Christopher Jones) is his Anna, a self-described “White Devil” who seduces the family toward Christianity and away from what he clearly views as barbarous Eastern notions. Hwang makes this caricature more theatrically palatable than it probably sounds, by turning Baines into a buffoon who speaks in pidgin Chinese (“Tea such yummy, no need cream”) to his articulate Asian hosts. Julyana Soelistyo’s Ahn must make the evening’s biggest leaps, both temporally (playing the character as a child and as a grandma) and ideologically (resisting tradition when young, embracing it in her dotage), and to her credit she’s credible at every step.

James Lapine stages the evening with the Broadway snap and pizazz for which he’s celebrated, as if determined to make up in sparkle whatever the script may lack in depth. Visual surprises abound. Billowing silk curtains neither part, nor rise, but flutter to the floor to reveal the household’s three character-delineating pagodas at the beginning of the evening. Thereafter, every movement feels choreographed; even a tabletop gets a stylized entrance. And if Hwang relies overmuch in his dialogue on simple reversals and paradox (“her modesty was positively shameless”), Lapine has found a performance style broad enough to make every punch line sound like a zinger.

It doesn’t hurt that designer Tony Straiges encloses the action in a huge Chinese treasure box of a set, its painted screens dominated by enormous clouds and symbols. Martin Pakledinaz’s slinky gowns and shimmering robes, David J. Lander’s dappled lighting, and the moody, extremely stereophonic sound design of Dan Moses Schreier (the plinking of wooden blocks erupts from all over the auditorium at one point) are all sure assets. In short, to the extent that patrons are going to be satisfied by flash and sizzle, it’s there to satisfy them. The evening feels brisk, bright, and entertaining, right up to the point that tragedy rears its entirely unexpected head near the end.

What Hwang needs to do now is justify that ending by deepening his central debate—especially the aspects of it that relate to the clash of Imperial China and imperialist Christianity—so that they seem to be about something more pressing than wordplay. Should he manage that, I suspect he might just find that what’s at present a thin but reasonably entertaining evening becomes quite a crowd-pleaser.CP