The Dance and the Railroad
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Theater review by Helen Shaw. Pershing Square Signature Center. By David Henry Hwang. Dir. May Adrales. With Yuekun Wu, Ruy Iskandar. 1hr 10mins. No intermission.
Mimi Lien’s set for the revival of David Henry Hwang’s 1981 The Dance and the Railroad sums up the situation nicely. The Pershing Square Signature Center’s smallest theater, the Griffin, already features Gehry-designed cubist cladding; Lien extends these jumbled plywood planes onto the stage, where they become a stylized Sierra Nevada—as well as a metaphor for the embracing Signature mission. Anywhere else, this elegant two-hander wouldn’t get a hearing, since its tidy rewards do not outstrip its compact size. But this production sets off the small jewel perfectly, so we can consider its frequently affecting facets in proportion and comfort.
Dance imagines two 19th-century Chinese railroad workers caught in a duet of art and labor: indomitable Lone (Wu), who defies exhaustion to train nightly for the Chinese opera, and Ma (Iskandar), the puppyish newcomer who knows just enough to be amazed at Lone’s skill. During the doomed, weeklong Central Pacific Railroad strike of 1867, Ma badgers Lone into taking him on, first as a student and then as an almost-friend. In this, his second play, Hwang didn’t always balance his fable structure with thematic complexity, and the easy dichotomy of art versus money feels like youthful writing. But a graceful, extended climax (sensitively directed by May Adrales), in which the men collaborate on an “opera” of Ma’s terrible journey to the West, deepens the piece immeasurably. For a short while, Hwang creates the sense that an epic—tragic and globe-spanning—has been folded infinitely small, and we have stumbled across it, curled up and hidden inside a short story.—Helen Shaw