Monday, January 07, 2008

Yellow Face

Photo/Joan Marcus

Is David Henry Hwang capable of writing about anything other than himself? Sure, but you wouldn't be able to tell from Yellow Face, his indulgent, albeit occasionally powerful, autobifictionalography (a term stolen from comic writer Lynda Barry). It's a one-person show about DHH (Hoon Lee) starring other characters (like Lisa Kron's Well, also directed by Leigh Silverman). It's also an apology for his Broadway flop, Face Value, a farce written in response to the controversial casting of Jonathan Pryce in Miss Saigon, which Mr. Hwang uses within his play to launch a new contrivance: his desperate, accidental casting of an American, Marcus G. Dahlman (Noah Bean), as the Asian lead of Face Value.

To avoid embarrassment, DHH covers for his actor, reshaping him as "Marcus Gee," a Siberian Jew (that's Eurasian to you!), only to grow jealous -- and offended -- when Marcus replaces him as the theater's Asian-American spokesperson. It would be delightfully self-deprecating, except it's not Mr. Hwang up there, it's Hoon Lee, and no matter how talented Mr. Lee is (and he is very, very talented), the "self-deprecation" misses, as do many of the ensemble's characterizations (B. D. Wong, good; Michael Riedel, bad; Jane Krakowski, awful). The play becomes a device for Mr. Hwang to hide behind, and as a result, the rage that he channels -- perhaps rightfully so -- at [Name Withheld On Advice of Counsel], a passively antagonistic New York Times reporter, doesn't connect on an emotional level. It becomes rhetoric, dictated in a sleek and distantly narrated framework. It's Extras without Ricky Gervais; there's a whole level of self-satire and awkward humor that just doesn't work.

That said, Yellow Face is a satisfyingly intellectual work, though those who disliked the superior (though less personal) The Farnsworth Invention will surely hate this play, too. Mrs. Silverman handles the meta-fiction well by removing any outside stimuli: the set is a slightly raised platform surrounded by several chairs (for idle actors) and three blank brick walls. The only props are radio microphones that swing down from above for the all-too-common montages of quotes (for despite -- or perhaps because of -- Mr. Hwang's fabrications, he's forced to clearly block out what is quantifiably true). The show only pauses when DHH is talking to his father, HYH (Francis Jue), and that's simply because HYH's endearing humor is in his slow persistence.

Yellow Face is an intriguing work, but David Henry Hwang set out to find a face and wound up extending his farce. The play has a mask up, a highly expressive one named Hoon Lee, but it prevents the work from being personal, and while it makes us think of artistic freedom and race, it does not make us feel for that struggle.

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