East is East and West is West and rarely have the twain met so bizarrely as in the recent case of a French diplomat's 20-year affair with a Chinese woman who turned out to be both a man and a spy.
Put in a novel, it would be dismissed as preposterous. Trying to make sense of it in his play "M. Butterfly," David Henry Hwang has approached the affair theatrically and intellectually. He treats it with wit and sensitivity. He fills the stage with provocative images.
But even though we know it actually happened, we still find ourselves baffled. Even though Hwang tries to make the diplomat poignant, and John Lithgow plays him superbly, it still just seems preposterous.
The tone of "M. Butterfly," with its frequent references to Puccini's opera, its often Brechtian devices, is analytical and playful. Often it becomes coarse. As a result, it is more like an amusing after-dinner speech than a human encounter.
B.D. Wong is an actor of skill and power, but we don't really believe he's a woman, which only makes it harder to accept the diplomat's naivete. Lithgow often has a little boy's forlornness that seems perfect for the role. He too has great reserves of power, but the play is too rhetorical to win our sympathy.
The supporting cast, especially George Martin, is solid. Eiko Ishioka's sets and costumes are extremely stylish. John Dexter's direction skillfully conveys all the play's ironies. This is a play of insights and epigrams. Off-Broadway, its assets would be properly appreciated. Here its slick trappings set expectations it cannot meet.
It has as many layers as a chrysanthemum bulb, or a Kabuki make-up, and it unfolds as leisurely as a Chinese banquet, or a fake geisha girl doing a striptease in a San Francisco tourist joint. It enriches, it fascinates, it offers thought to feed on.
It starts by saying East is East and West is West, that woman needs man and man must have his mate, and very often, and on many levels, lips can say no and eyes can say yes.
It wonders why Giacomo Puccini's little opera "Madama Butterfly" - based on David Belasco's instant Yankee folk-legend - is so popular with the white devils who frequent opera and its emotional suburbs.
Then it turns everything upside down - sexism, racism, and man's infinite ability for self-delusion - in a whole bouncing series of acrobatic theatrical somersaults.
It is David Henry Hwang's play "M. Butterfly," based loosely on fact, or at least the headlines of fact. It is directed by John Dexter, it stars John Lithgow and a hithetto unknown B.D. Wong.
It opened at the Eugene O'Neill Theater last night, and I heartily recommend it to you. It will move you, it will thrill you, it may even surprise you. It is a play not to be missed, and it is a play once caught that will never be forgotten.
Layers! Titillating, bed-time kimono, silk-rich layers! "M. Butterfly" started with an actual news story in the New York Times. A Paris espionage trial. Transvestite agent lures French diplomat - after 20 years liaison and "fathering of child," victim expresses shock that primadonna spy was man.
The story, and you may remember it, did seem fantastic. It happened a few years ago. A French diplomat was charged with giving information to China, through his mistress, who apparently was a star of the Peking Opera, and, of course, was a man.
I personally took the whole thing with a pinch of salt as simply bad or sensationalist reporting. How could even the most naive diplomat posted to China not be aware that China's major performing art, the Peking Opera, like much of the Oriental theater, was an exclusively male preserve, just as is major-league baseball in the United States?
American playwright Hwang saw more in the story, took a quantam leap into art, and ran with it.
Obviously the "opera" aspect of it appealed to him, and he came up with the "Madam Butterfly" idea. From then on in, all the playwright-lepidopterist had to do was pin his idea, or ideas, down on to the stage. And this, substantially helped I imagine by Dexter, he has managed magnificently.
Remarkably Hwang and Dexter have made a supercharged Broadway vehicle out of what could have been a very rickety rickshaw.
There are two vital aspects to Hwang's vision. The first is that racism and sexism are curiously related in the mind of Western man. The second is that the reality of fantasy has no meaning in the self-deluding focus of true love.
Hwang's first point is postulated early on the play. Noting the passion audiences feel for Puccini's "Butterfly," Hwang's beautiful spy asks the diplomat how he would feel about the opera if it were about the suicide of an American "blonde homecoming queen in love with a short Japanese businessman."
Hwang is suggesting that the whole concept of a wilting, submissive Oriental girl to a white cad, not only represents a rape-concept lurking in many Occidental masculine hearts, but also mirrors politically the West's imperialist attitude to Eastern culture.
It is the kind of idea - forget, as does the playwright, that Oriental society traditionally is itself macho-sexist and male-oriented, and concentrate on the politico-sexual metaphor that is the ripe kernel of drama.
Add to this the concept of love's self-delusion - taken to its ultimate degree of trust and folly - and you have a play, or at least its makings.
"M. Butterfly" never cheats - well, perhaps a little in its massively effective grandstand, grandslam ending involving sex transference - in making Hwang's point, beyond sex and politics, that "happiness is so rare, and our hearts will turn somersaults to protect it."
And we must believe - and this is partly Lithgow's triumph as well - with our diplomat toward the end, when he says with utter sincerity, and seeming truth: "In China I once loved and was loved by the perfect woman." Who has fooled whom?
Dexter's staging proves perfect. The setting by Eiko Ishioka is blood-red, with a sensational ramp circling round from the top of the stage to the bottom - a runway equally fit for an Oriental queen or even Hollywood's Rita Hayworth.
Within this is the playing area, where Hwang's vignettes are silkily defined by moving Chinese screens and curtains, demonstrating Dexter's adroit East/West staging, as surely as does his mixture of Peking Opera techniques with cinematic dissolves, and Puccini with Chinese-style music by Lucia Hwong.
The play has its faults. The writing can embrace such pedestrian exchanges as "She eats out of my hand / She was probably very hungry," and the minor characters, although tellingly plaed by the likes of John Getz, Rose Gregorio, and George N. Martin (all excellent), remain resolutely ciphers of dramatic convenience.
But the diplomat and his lover - these are creatures of substance and beauty, and marvelously played by Lithgow and Wong, in two Tony-winning-style performances.
Lithgow has never been better - his tortured bafflement and wimpish determination are exquisitely sketched - and Wong as the ambiguous male/female love object, seductive, cynical, and confused by turn, matches Lithgow's caring virtuosity.
All in all, "M. Butterfly" sizzles with the immediacy of theater at its most challenging and entertaining.
It didn't require genius for David Henry Hwang to see that there were the makings of a compelling play in the 1986 newspaper story that prompted him to write ''M. Butterfly.'' Here was the incredible true-life tale of a career French foreign service officer brought to ruin - conviction for espionage - by a bizarre 20-year affair with a Beijing Opera diva. Not only had the French diplomat failed to recognize that his lover was a spy; he'd also failed to figure out that ''she'' was a he in drag. ''It was dark, and she was very modest,'' says Gallimard (John Lithgow), Mr. Hwang's fictionalized protagonist, by half-joking way of explanation. When we meet him in the prison cell where he reviews his life, Gallimard has become, according to own understatement, ''the patron saint of the socially inept.''
But if this story is a corker, what is it about, exactly? That's where Mr. Hwang's imagination, one of the most striking to emerge in the American theater in this decade, comes in, and his answer has nothing to do with journalism. This playwright, the author of ''The Dance and the Railroad'' and ''Family Devotions,'' does not tease us with obvious questions such as is she or isn't she?, or does he know or doesn't he? Mr. Hwang isn't overly concerned with how the opera singer, named Song Liling (B. D. Wong), pulled his hocus-pocus in the boudoir, and he refuses to explain away Gallimard by making him a closeted, self-denying homosexual. An inversion of Puccini's ''Madama Butterfly,'' ''M. Butterfly'' is also the inverse of most American plays. Instead of reducing the world to an easily digested cluster of sexual or familial relationships, Mr. Hwang cracks open a liaison to reveal a sweeping, universal meditation on two of the most heated conflicts - men versus women, East versus West - of this or any other time.
As a piece of playwriting that manages to encompass phenomena as diverse as the origins of the Vietnam War and the socio-economic code embedded in Giorgio Armani fashions, ''M. Butterfly'' is so singular that one hates to report that a visitor to the Eugene O'Neill Theater must overcome a number of obstacles to savor it. Because of some crucial and avoidable lapses - a winning yet emotionally bland performance from Mr. Lithgow and inept acting in some supporting roles - the experience of seeing the play isn't nearly as exciting as thinking about it after the curtain has gone down. The production only rises to full power in its final act, when the evening's triumphant performance, Mr. Wong's mesmerizing account of the transvestite diva, hits its own tragic high notes. Until then, one must settle for being grateful that a play of this ambition has made it to Broadway, and that the director, John Dexter, has realized as much of Mr. Hwang's far-ranging theatricality as he has.
As usual, Mr. Hwang demands a lot from directors, actors and theatergoers. A 30-year-old Chinese-American writer from Los Angeles, he has always blended Oriental and Western theater in his work, and ''M. Butterfly'' does so on an epic scale beyond his previous plays, let alone such similarly minded Western hybrids as ''Pacific Overtures'' or ''Nixon in China.'' While ostensibly constructed as a series of Peter Shafferesque flashbacks narrated by Gallimard from prison, the play is as intricate as an infinity of Chinese boxes. Even as we follow the narrative of the lovers' affair, it is being refracted through both overt and disguised burlesque deconstructions of ''Madama Butterfly.'' As Puccini's music collides throughout with a percussive Eastern score by Lucia Hwong, so Western storytelling and sassy humor intermingle with flourishes of martial-arts ritual, Chinese opera (Cultural Revolution Maoist agitprop included) and Kabuki. Now and then, the entire mix is turned inside out, Genet and Pirandello style, to remind us that fantasy isn't always distinguishable from reality and that actors are not to be confused with their roles.
The play's form - whether the clashing and blending of Western and Eastern cultures or of male and female characters - is wedded to its content. It's Mr. Hwang's starting-off point that a cultural icon like ''Madama Butterfly'' bequeaths the sexist and racist roles that burden Western men: Gallimard believes he can become ''a real man'' only if he can exercise power over a beautiful and submissive woman, which is why he's so ripe to be duped by Song Liling's impersonation of a shrinking butterfly. Mr. Hwang broadens his message by making Gallimard an architect of the Western foreign policy in Vietnam. The diplomat disastrously reasons that a manly display of American might can bring the Viet Cong to submission as easily as he or Puccini's Pinkerton can overpower a Madama Butterfly.
Lest that ideological leap seem too didactic, the playwright shuffles the deck still more, suggesting that the roles played by Gallimard and Song Liling run so deep that they cross the boundaries of nations, cultures, revolutions and sexual orientations. That Gallimard was fated to love ''a woman created by a man'' proves to be figuratively as well as literally true: we see that the male culture that inspired his ''perfect woman'' is so entrenched that the attitudes of ''Madama Butterfly'' survive in his cherished present-day porno magazines. Nor is the third world, in Mr. Hwang's view, immune from adopting the roles it condemns in foreign devils. We're sarcastically told that men continue to play women in Chinese opera because ''only a man knows how a woman is supposed to act.'' When Song Liling reassumes his male ''true self,'' he still must play a submissive Butterfly to Gallimard - whatever his or Gallimard's actual sexual persuasions - unless he chooses to play the role of aggressor to a Butterfly of his own.
Mr. Hwang's play is not without its repetitions and its overly explicit bouts of thesis mongering. When the playwright stops trusting his own instinct for the mysterious, the staging often helps out. Using Eiko Ishioka's towering, blood-red Oriental variant on the abstract sets Mr. Dexter has employed in ''Equus'' and the Metropolitan Opera ''Dialogues of the Carmelites,'' the director stirs together Mr. Hwang's dramatic modes and settings until one floats to a purely theatrical imaginative space suspended in time and place. That same disorienting quality can be found in Mr. Wong's Song Liling - a performance that, like John Lone's in the early Hwang plays, finds even more surprises in the straddling of cultures than in the blurring of genders.
But Mr. Dexter's erratic handling of actors, also apparent in his Broadway ''Glass Menagerie'' revival, inflicts a serious toll. John Getz and Rose Gregorio, as Gallimard's oldest pal and wife, are wildly off-key, wrecking the intended high-style comedy of the all-Western scenes. Mr. Lithgow, onstage virtually throughout, projects intelligence and wit, and his unflagging energy drives and helps unify the evening. Yet this engaging, ironic Gallimard never seems completely consumed by passion, whether the eroticism of imperialism or of the flesh, and the performance seems to deepen more in pitch than despair from beginning to end. Though ''M. Butterfly'' presents us with a visionary work that bridges the history and culture of two worlds, the production stops crushingly short of finding the gripping human drama that merges Mr. Hwang's story with his brilliant play of ideas.