Theater Reviews

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Mark Taper Forum
Through July 1


If you didn't know much about playwright David Henry Hwang before seeing the world premiere of his new play, you will know a lot about him afterward. "Yellow Face" is a masterfully written but almost suffocatingly autobiographical comedy, rich in laughs, that begins with a politically incorrect casting twist following a Broadway breakthrough.

From there on, the spotlight shines, with varying degrees of intellectual clarity and conviction, on both discrimination against Chinese Americans and the difficulty of maintaining identity in a chaotically pluralistic society. Unfortunately, the fact that the victims of the discrimination are exceptional and not ordinary Chinese Americans -- Hwang is a vastly successful, three-time Tony-winning playwright; his father, a millionaire banker; Wen Ho Lee, an upper-echelon nuclear scientist -- makes the impact of the discrimination, while profoundly wounding in reality, less emotionally powerful on the stage.

Director Leigh Silverman has done a magnificent job of realizing the potential of Hwang's dialogue and operatic structure that consists of a series of interludes and recitatives alternating with large set pieces like the conversations between Hwang and his father (Tzi Ma) and Marcus Gee (Peter Scanavino) and a series of brilliantly written news conferences. The impressive production is mounted on a stage bare of anything except chairs and a huge framed mirror.

As the playwright, Hoon Lee adds to his consummate technique as an actor the command, physical gifts and timing of a stand-up comedian, and a superb talent for charismatic emotional displays. In the process of carrying the play on his shoulders (he is onstage practically nonstop), Hoon ranges from an endearing, Jeremy Piven kind of nebbishness to an awesome power in expressing both comedic and serious outrage and angst.

Scanavino takes on the ethnically ambiguous role of Gee (object of the casting snafu) with great energy and provides an outstanding foil to his colleagues. His spoken e-mails from a remote Chinese village are memorable, as are two sizzling love scenes with Julienne Hanzelka Kim. Tzi, who plays a number of roles, acts with great relish and shows a fine ability to create widely different characterizations.

Kim, Lucas Caleb Rooney and Kathryn Layng work hard and score occasional points in the large number of roles they are asked to play, but mostly they get lost in the shuffle of changing accents and story line, especially when they are asked to play real-life public figures. In the key role of an anonymous New York Times writer, Tony Torn plays the part of a nonactor to apparent perfection, but the play might benefit from a less subtly ominous tone.

As the play enters the homestretch, it's not clear what kind of a conclusion is appropriate for a chronicle of lost identity and racism that has been played largely for laughs. There is no overarching love interest, and only the death of Hwang's father, triggered by a congressional witch hunt, is particularly moving. Hwang's solution, unfortunately, to suddenly cut back on the laughs and make sentimental appeals for understanding and fairness, does not work dramatically.

But though it fails to establish and hold a true center of concern, "Yellow" is a brilliant play that gives a fine actor a once-in-a-lifetime showcase.

YELLOW FACE
Presented by Center Theatre Group, the Public Theater and East West Players
Credits:
Playwright: David Henry Hwang
Director: Leigh Silverman
Set designer: David Korins
Costume designer: Myung Hee Cho
Lighting designer: Donald Holder
Sound designer: Darron West
Casting: Jordan Thaler/Heidi Griffiths and Erika Sellin
Production stage manager: James McDermott
Stage manager: Elizabeth Atkinson
Cast:
Leah/others: Julienne Hanzelka Kim
Jane/Miles/others: Kathryn Layng
DHH: Hoon Lee
HYH/others: Tzi Ma
Stuart, Rocco/others: Lucas Caleb Rooney
Marcus: Peter Scanavino
Announcer: Tony Torn
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