Court Theatre. By David Henry Hwang. Directed by Charles Newell. With Sean Fortunato, Nathaniel Braga. Running time: 2hrs 30mins; one intermission.
Theater review by Kris Vire
The play that leveled up David Henry Hwang's career in 1988, winning a raft of awards including the Tony for best play, was inspired by a very curious real-life news story: that of the French diplomat Bernard Boursicot's conviction for espionage over his affair with a male Chinese opera singer he claims to have believed was a woman for 20 years.
Attempting to get at how this could have happened, Hwang presents a fictional version of the pair. The diplomat is now Rene Gallimard (Sean Fortunato), an ineffectual man with a long history of being mystified by the opposite sex, to the point of imagining pep talks from a confident friend (Mark L. Montgomery) from his school days. Gallimard marries an older woman out of professional convenience, but it isn't until he meets the coy Song Liling (Nathaniel Braga) that he begins to see himself as a blossoming alpha male. Blinded to more than just Song's hidden gender, Gallimard doesn't see how the singer is bilking him for intel on America's intentions in Vietnam to pass on to Chairman Mao and friends.
Court's revival begins with Gallimard in his prison cell, the rest of the action unfolding in a sort of hallucinatory flashback, with Song asserting more control over the telling even as Gallimard thinks he's asserting more control over his life. Though Charles Newell's production is visually quite attractive, Hwang's moralizing about the West and the East as traditionally male or female feels overly simplistic and schematic given the last quarter-century of developments.
What's more, this Kiss of the Spy-der Woman conceit doesn't quite work due to its miscast leads. Though Braga, Court's representatives assure us, does come from partly Chinese ancestry, he never reads convincingly as Chinese. Perhaps more importantly, he never convinces as a woman—giving the always intelligent-seeming Fortunato an uphill climb to persuade us that he let himself be fooled for so long. Like much of this cast, the two project their characters' intents with such force as to make them overblown and unbelievable.