Anne Marie Welsh’s review of Yellow Face!

October 21, 2010

THEATER REVIEW: ‘Yellow Face’ cleverly spoofs political correctness

By ANNE MARIE WELSH – For the North County Times North County Times – Californian | Posted: Wednesday, October 20, 2010 1:03 pm

In ‘Yellow Face,” playwright David Henry Hwang skewers the absurdities of ethnic political correctness with a merry prankster’s grin and a loving son’s big heart. And in the Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company’s production of this spirited 2007 satire, founder-director Seema Sueko shows the instinct for comedy that she’s withheld from local stages for much too long.

Sueko’s sly direction and Greg Watanabe’s irresistibly energetic performance as the hapless playwright DHH make “Yellow Face” a must see, one of the best Mo’olelo shows in its six-year history. By turns hilarious, touching and provocative, it goes a long way toward atoning for the dutifully well-intentioned —- and vaguely dull work —- that sometimes sprang from both Sueko and Hwang himself.

The playwright came to national prominence with his acerbic and original “M. Butterfly,” which won the 1988 Tony award for drama. Sueko burst onto the San Diego scene with a terrific lead performance in the Old Globe’s 2004 production of Rolin Jones’ dazzling comedy, “The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow.”

Hwang’s real-life fame made him a spokesman for Asian American artists and other “minority” causes. And he thus became the media “face” of high-profile protests against the casting of the white actor Jonathan Pryce as a Vietnamese engineer in the 1991 Broadway production of the megahit “Miss Saigon.”

With buoyant self-mockery, Hwang depicts the less-savory aspects of himself in the lead character DHH of “Yellow Face.” The play begins with the casting controversy and the egotistical DHH serving as a spokesman against “Saigon” producer Cameron Mackintosh and the longstanding artistic practice of using white actors (in yellow face make-up and taped eyes) to play Asians.

But over the course of the evening, as DHH begins to see the absurdities into which his own ideas have led him, he becomes disaffected with his own rigidities and far softer —- and more compassionate —- as a human being. Shrewdly, too, Hwang demonstrates that in the end, it’s the quality of your creativity, not the color of your face, that makes an artist.

Still, even when DHH comes to terms with the non-artistic discrimination suffered by his America-loving Chinese father, “Yellow Face” never melts into sentimentality. It’s too consistently funny for that. Some of the best moments in Watanabe’s wonderfully fluid performance as DHH have him careening from principled spokesman to womanizing narcissist to exasperated and baffled defender of a fake Asian actor whom he has accidentally cast in a play.

To save his own face, DHH invents a Chinese-sounding surname and backstory for the actor, telling the press the performer is only partly Asian; he’s a Russian-Siberian Jew.

And then, to the writer-hero’s dismay, Marcus Gee outdoes him as a daring anti-discrimination crusader. Brian Bielawski plays Marcus with a winning combination of innocence and cluelessness; his scenes with Watanabe’s DHH, by now exhausted and beleaguered, possess a practiced comedy duo’s sharp timing.

Four other actors appear in a variety of guises (and sometimes genders). Jacob Bruce makes a solid San Diego debut as a nameless New York Times reporter who goes after both DHH’s father and the unfairly accused Chinese nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee. He’s just as good portraying various government goons and a couple of very different New York theater producers.

Albert Park plays DHH’s successful, patriotic and finally deflated businessman father and other, much younger Asian-Americans. Michelle Wong nicely distinguishes various girlfriends and gofers. Maggie Carney offers (too) broadly comic portrayals of actress Jane Krakowski, a casting agent and others.

It’s Watanabe, however, who carries the show. His seeming spontaneity matches Sueko’s playful direction and Hwang’s remarkable skill in mixing emotional tones and colors as this entertaining and thoughtful play rounds to a close.

“Yellow Face”

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays; through Oct. 31

Where: 10th Avenue Theatre, 930 10th Ave., San Diego

Tickets: $22-$27

Info: 858-761-3871


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