At the heart of “Golden Child," there is what may be one of the great themes of the 21st century: China's confrontation with the West. Though set for the most part in 1918 and 1919, the play's story echoes into the present and the future.
With such a big, important theme, and with some of the best Chinese-American actors brought together on a Broadway stage, this ought to be a major event. It is, instead, a major disappointment.
David Henry Hwang, best known for "M. Butterfly," has reworked "Golden Child" since it was produced at the Public in 1996. He has not, alas, transformed it into what it ought to be a powerful evocation of the dilemmas of China's attempts to modernize itself.
Hwang has certainly imagined a story that should allow his actors to give a human face to the struggles of a vast society. Framed by brief episodes in modern Manhattan, "Golden Child" is the tragedy of the liberal landlord Eng Tieng-Bin and his three wives.
We meet the wives first, squabbling among themselves as they prepare for the return of their lord and master from Manila, where he has established a trading business. When he comes back to their tight, traditional society, he trails the ways of the West behind him Christianity, consumer goods, revulsion at old practices like the binding of women's feet.
There are here the ingredients of a great tragedy, an intimate disaster that illuminates an epic conflict. They are, though, assembled rather than mixed.
Though it has very well-written scenes, "Golden Child" manages the unfortunate feat of being at once too earnest and too flippant. On one hand, it is too insistent on hammering home its theme of China's confrontation with the modern world. Instead of the theme arising naturally from a story and set of characters, both are shaped to its demands.
On the other hand, Hwang seems afraid of the potential grandeur of his story. The large, sweeping tale of the confrontation of two worlds is important enough to justify its place on a Broadway stage. But Hwang keeps undercutting it with one-liners and self-deprecating jokes. He seems continually to lose confidence in his own sense of purpose.
This makes for a strangely jarring journey. Whenever the play is building an atmosphere of doom, it is stopped in its tracks by a facetious aside. And instead of trying to impose a consistent tone, James Lapine's direction often adds to the uncertainty.
The production does have considerable strengths. Tony Straiges' sets are handsome and make clever use of the stage. Randall Duk Kim as the landlord evokes both the imperious air of one used to being in charge and the pained uncertainty of a man caught up in forces he cannot quite understand.
Tsai Chin, Ming Na-Wen and Kim Myori make as much as anyone could from rather confined roles as the wives. And Julyana Soelistyo is quite superb as Ahn, the young girl who witnesses the tragedy and the old woman who tells the story to her own son in Manhattan.
None of this is enough, though, to make up for the play's loss of faith in its subject. If the playwright doesn't believe strongly enough in his own story, all the tea in China won't make an audience swallow it.
A loud clash of cultures was resonating last night in the Longacre Theater, where David Henry Hwang's "Golden Child," a most intriguing play telling of a Chinese businessman living in southeast China in 1918 and his attempt to embrace Western philosophy, arrived on Broadway.
The show has had a somewhat circuitous journey. It started out nearly two years ago at the Joseph Papp Public Theater, but since then it has been partly rewritten, largely recast and has traveled as far afield as San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and even Singapore.
That trip to Asia seems totally appropriate, because Hwang's play is about assimilation and roots. His hero is Eng Tieng-Bing (Randall Duk Kim), the local lord of a small Chinese village who has considerable business connections in the Philippines.
It is during his lengthy stays in the Philippines that he becomes interested in Western philosophy (particularly the stress Occidentals placed on the significance of the individual) and Christianity.
He came from a society that practiced ancestor worship and polygamy, and where women, apart from the peasants, still crippled themselves by binding their feet. Yet it was also a China that the nationalist leader Sun Yat-sen was already leading along new paths, many running parallel to Western thought.
Hwang, in his most sophisticated play so far, manages very cleverly to dramatize this new spirit, borrowing largely, it seems, from the story - as told to him by his grandmother, the true-life "golden child" in the play - of his own family (a modern variant on ancestor worship, perhaps).
We are shown the machinations and tensions within this closed society, with Eng and his three wives (Tsai Chin, Kim Miyori and Ming-Na Wen), his eldest child (an impish Julyana Soelistyo) and a scarcely militant yet humorously persuasive Church of England missionary (the stalwart John Horton).
It's a fascinating picture that Hwang is showing us, a family torn apart, a civilization in flux; but he obviously felt, perhaps rightly, that it was a picture in need of a frame - some kind of setting.
In both the interesting first version at the Public Theater and in this more polished and truly rewarding revised production, the playwright introduces us, in a prologue and epilogue, to Andrew, the grandson of the play's protagonist, and to the ghost of his dead mother. In the original version, Andrew experienced this vision on the way to an airport; this time, it's in a dream. Neither version really works.
This is a flaw - and it remains a wonderfully provocative play without a real resolution - yet Hwang's domestic details of the backbiting wives and their hierarchical henpecking order, his comments on Chinese manners and customs (particularly when faced by the "white devils" of the West) and his concept of the Chinese "web of obligations dating back 5,000 years" is all powerful stuff.
As in the earlier production, James Lapine's staid and leisurely staging is perfect, as is the delicate work of the design team - Tony Straiges (setting), Martin Pakledinaz (costumes) and David J. Lander (lighting) - who circumspectly avoid any fake chinoiserie.
And, finally - yet very importantly - the acting is a joy. That fine actor Duk Kim is handsomely conscience-torn as the businessman caught between two worlds, while his three wives, Chin, Miyori and Wen, strike to the heart with their various concerns and fears. If this transition to the modern world was hard for men, how much harder it was for their women, and how brilliantly these three show the ways!
There is no physical attribute more appealing to Ahn, the bullheaded, 10-year-old heroine of ''Golden Child,'' than big feet. As a daughter in a wealthy family in the China of 1918, she has been forced to undergo the brutal ritual of foot-binding, a ''beautifying'' process so excruciating that she walks as if perpetually stepping on hot coals.
Over the protests of her tradition-bound mother, her progressive father, increasingly enamored of such Western ideals as Christian mercy and individual dignity, answers her pleas and orders her feet unbound. But liberation has a price: the agony of muscle and bone reverting to their natural alignment is twice as unbearable as the binding. ''You do not know,'' says the disapproving mother, ''what a terrible gift is freedom.''
The binding cloth is delicately unwound on the stage of the Longacre Theater, and Ahn, portrayed beguilingly by Julyana Soelistyo, learns a thing or two about painful transitions. It is a moment, in fact, that stands as the metaphor of choice for the evening, for painful transitions are what ''Golden Child'' is all about. David Henry Hwang's family drama, which opened last night, is a gentle, if rather stolid, tale of the unbinding of a traditional Chinese household as it comes increasingly under the influence of the moral, artistic and economic values of Western culture -- a transition, Mr. Hwang argues, that does more good than harm. The play, by the author of the Tony-winning ''M. Butterfly,'' was first presented last season at the Joseph Papp Public Theater, where it received mixed reviews. The Broadway version, directed, as was the earlier incarnation, by James Lapine, has been substantially rewritten. Mr. Hwang replaced some of the awkward plot devices, clarified his central ideas and made the piece more active: the unbinding of Ahn's feet, for instance, merely referred to in the original production, is now enacted.
Still, ''Golden Child'' is unable to buff its dull finish successfully. Mr. Hwang may have brought a smashing theatricality to ''M. Butterfly'' -- which, admittedly, was based on a riveting true story -- but he hasn't figured out how to infuse a less sensational tale with the narrative force and energy necessary to animate a Broadway stage.
Part of the problem may be that ''Golden Child'' has literary pretensions that give it a pacing closer to that of a boiled-down novel than a theater piece. Bookish themes, like the clash of Eastern and Western ideas of spirituality, are emphasized again and again, and characters sometimes are defined as much by what they symbolize for the playwright as who they are to one another. Each of the three wives of the household (polygamy was the norm at the time) appears to correspond to a specific characteristic of the play, as if they were symbols on an astrological chart. There is the hidebound First Wife (played by Tsai Chin), who represents tradition; the grasping Second Wife (Kim Miyori), who denotes power, and the devoted young Third Wife (Ming-Na Wen), love.
A result of this novelistic formality is that ''Golden Child'' plays at times like one of those ponderous costume dramas that ''Masterpiece Theater'' has resorted to showing, now that adaptations of most of the best books by Austen and Dickens and Hardy have already been made. Indeed, Martin Pakledinaz's costumes for ''Golden Child,'' glorious Chinese gowns and robes and frilly Edwardian dresses, constitute the most rousing aspect of the production. They're fun to look at even when the narrative drags.
Mr. Hwang has said in interviews that the play is based on his own family history in China in the early 20th century, and for those unfamiliar with Chinese culture, ''Golden Child'' possesses what feels like authentic and exotic detail. Most of the story takes place in the household of Eng Tieng-Bin (Randall Duk Kim), a businessman who returns to his three wives and myriad children, including Ahn, the ''golden child,'' after three years in the Philippines, where he acquired a fascination with such facets of Western civilization as monogamy and Jesus Christ.
Tieng-Bin's ideas disrupt the compound, which is headed by him but is really run by the squabbling, jockeying wives, who barely mask their mutual contempt in sugar-coated jibes. Posturing is rampant in the house, and Mr. Hwang is adept at diagramming the hypocrisies, starting with Tieng-Bin's: his fondest wish is for a monogamous relationship with the Third Wife, Eling, the only one of his wives whom he selected out of love, and though he embraces Christianity, his theological fervor has more to do with a desire for a romantic union than a sanctified one.
The Eng household is an appropriate petri dish in which to grow the conflicts fomented by the introduction of European ideas; the characters represent a spectrum of reactions to new customs and philosophies. Ms. Chin's stubborn First Wife, refusing to accede to her husband's demands for change, destroys herself with opium, while Ms. Miyori's adaptive Second Wife, given a waffle iron by her husband as an insulting gift upon his return, swallows her pride and learns to make waffles.
But contrary to so many depictions of the encroachments of the West on Asia, ''Golden Child'' does not present Westernization as a moral contamination, a de-purification. Through characters like Tieng-Bin and Ahn, Mr. Hwang suggests that the exchange of ideas creates opportunities for personal growth, for new ways of thinking, and that such traditions as ancestor worship were hindrances, keeping people so anchored to the past that they were afraid to look ahead. The play's sole Caucasian character, the missionary Anthony Baines (John Horton), is the embodiment of Mr. Hwang's benign view of the outside world. He is not a boorish infidel, but a polite functionary whose halting Chinese and lack of success with converts attest to a well-meaning guilelessness.
Still, despite its intriguing discussion points, ''Golden Child'' rarely seems anything that would not be just as compelling in manuscript form. The playwright, unfortunately, has chosen a modern framework for his period drama, a clunky gimmick that is meant to make the play more accessible but instead blunts its impact: The Engs' story is related in the present by a now-deceased, elderly Ahn, who appears to her son, Andrew (Mr. Kim again), in a dream. It's an obvious and tired stage cliche that Mr. Hwang employs only half-heartedly. The latter-day scenes are so attenuated in the reworked production -- a more complicated version of the modern story has been excised -- that they seem vestigial, almost irrelevant.
The actors, under Mr. Lapine's competent direction, create a dignified ensemble. As the warring wives, Ms. Chin, Ms. Miyori and Ms. Wen never overplay their hands: silhouetted behind the sheer curtains of Tony Straiges's simple renderings of their individual pavilions, they flutter like caged birds. Mr. Kim is convincingly troubled as the head of a turbulent Chinese household in 1918, but less compelling as the present-day writer.
It is the seemingly ageless Ms. Soelistyo who provides the most enjoyment. She's a find in the double-duty role of young and old Ahn, a performer who can magically add and subtract years with the mere brandishing of a scarf.
The actress envelops herself in Ahn's indomitable life force, a spirit symbolically unleashed in the instant the golden child's feet are freed from those terrible bindings. For ''Golden Child'' itself, that moment of catharsis, unfortunately, does not come. The play never escapes its own, ultimately more constricting tether, to the page.
The burden of ancestry may be one of many provocative concerns in David Henry Hwang's "Golden Child," but such issues ultimately pale next to a more immediate obligation --- to be dramatic --- that the play just does not meet. An undoubtedly personal work, Hwang's first Broadway venture since the Tony-winning "M. Butterfly" a decade ago (an interim play, "Face Value," never got to opening night) bears all the hallmarks of a worthy effort that has yet to rise above its good intentions. While one applauds its producers' ambitions to widen the commercial theater's spectrum of plays, "Golden Child" looks an unlikely bet to be a Broadway favorite.
That's not for want of trying. Hwang's play has taken an unusual and tenacious path to Broadway, following up mixed reviews in its Off Broadway debut 17 months ago with major recasting and rewriting and a series of out-of-town tryouts that included a stint in Singapore. Though it would be nice to report that such perseverance now seems worth the trouble, truth to tell, it doesn't. At least as staged by James Lapine, the play is as staid as it is self-evidently sincere, and all its alternately jokey and melodramatic passages merely amplify Hwang's failure to bring some fascinating themes to urgent, needful life.
If anything, the first act, in particular, suggests a dramatist softening his approach, lest an audience be put off by what is, at heart, an Asian-American variant on the African-American debates that have long fueled the work of August Wilson --- a grappling with ancestral ghosts among them. Andrew Kwong (Randall Duk Kim), a middle-aged writer (and presumable Hwang surrogate), is in a flap about the pregnancy of his young wife Elizabeth (Ming-Na Wen) when he is visited one night by the feisty, if petite, apparition of his religious fundamentalist mother (Julyana Soelistyo), who has a story to tell.
That story, told in flashbacks that take place in the Fukien province of China in 1918-19, forms the bulk of the play, with the diminutive Soelistyo shedding her wizened shuffle to play herself as a 10-year-old child, Ahn, even as actor Kim doubles as his own grandfather, Eng Tieng-Bin. A man in sometimes ambivalent thrall to modernity, Tieng-Bin is a successful businessmen based in the Philippines who on the home front must juggle not only three wives but a society in sometimes painful transition from one system of values and beliefs to another.
The presence of three wives prompts speculation that the play might become the sort of sex farce that in England is a West End mainstay --- a "Run for Your Wife," Asian-style --- but Hwang's approach instead alights on what one might call sitcom-snappy. "M. Butterfly," too, had its jarring facetious interludes, mitigated in the earlier play's case by its sheer narrative pull and the go-for-broke directorial theatrics of the late John Dexter. But as the wives here sit around bitching --- "What are you, retarded?," asks first wife Siu-Yong (Tsai Chin), who gets a conversation-closer right out of "Saturday Night Live" --- one could just as well be watching an unexpected rewrite of "The Women," despite the unmistakable elan of Tony Straiges' pavilion-filled set (elegantly lit by David J. Lander) and Lapine's resourceful use of some of the Chinese theater techniques that fired up "M. Butterfly."
The most common object of her and second wife Luan's (Kim Miyori) derision? Third, and comeliest, wife Eling (played by Wen), to whom Tieng-Bin brings a scratchy copy of "La Traviata." (Wife No. 2, by contrast, has to settle for the shiny novelty of a waffle iron.)
As might be expected from the writer of "F.O.B.," Hwang has a lovely time contrasting differences in culture, gender, generation and religion, so it's doubly disappointing that the second act barely ups the stakes established in the first. The volume level rises, as various showdowns, addictions and even deaths take their toll, but so does one's sense that Hwang hasn't released the inherent drama in tensions that --- as Ang Lee's beautiful film "The Wedding Banquet" reminds us --- are ongoing today. It's typical of the dramatic shortfall that Ahn is announced over and over as a "golden child" --- among other things, she's the first female in her family to be freed the indignity of foot-binding --- without in any way asserting herself beyond the cutesy, giggly persona that Soelistyo offloads on the part.
That this actress has traveled with the play on its complicated journey indicates that broad brush strokes in her case are what both writer and director want: Somewhat surprisingly, the production has far more sentimental embellishments than Lapine's concurrent (and, for the most part, beautifully acted) Broadway outing, "The Diary of Anne Frank." With Wen a blank if beautiful presence in Martin Pakledinaz's costumes, it falls to the older actors to provide the missing gravitas. Chin has undeniable command of the stage (on this evidence, she'd be a first-rate Martha in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"), but her First Wife suffers most the contradictions of a script that can't decide whether she should be delivering zingers or suffering a la Mary Tyrone. The excellent Kim, a deep-voiced, authoritative Kralahome in Broadway's recent "King and I," makes a poignantly conflicted convert to Christianity. In the end, it's hardly his fault that a play intriguingly obsessed with ghosts sadly remains a shadow of what it might have been.