For as lovely as it is, the revival of David Henry Hwang’s The Dance and the Railroad that opened on Monday in The Griffin theater at The Pershing Square Signature Center is nowhere near as magical as the original production that debuted at the New Federal Theater at the Henry Street Settlement in 1981 and then moved to the Public Theater where I saw it.
This revival is the second production of the season that Signature, which celebrates one playwright each year, has dedicated to Hwang. Although 25 years have passed since he wrote his best-known play, M. Butterfly, Hwang remains the only Asian-American playwright with broad name recognition (click here to read a profile of him).
The American-born son of Chinese immigrants who made good (his dad was a banker; his mom a pianist) Hwang specializes in plays that deal with assimilation, alienation and other mutabilities of modern identity. The first play in his Signature season was Golden Child, a wry comedy from 1996 that tells the story of how a traditional Chinese family with one husband and three wives made the transition to western ways.
My friend Jesse and I enjoyed that production even though the acting and some of Hwang's updates on the original script were uneven. It also made me look forward even more to seeing The Dance and the Railroad again.
I didn’t know who Hwang was when I first read about that play back in 1981 but I was intrigued by it because a Chinese-American friend had told me stories, then left out of history books, about the scores of young men who emigrated from China to America in the 19th century, believing that they’d make their fortunes here only to end up as underpaid laborers on the transcontinental railroad.
Hwang’s 70-minute play is a series of encounters between two of those workers: Lone, who, after two years in the country, now finds his sole comfort in the rituals of the Chinese opera he studied as a boy; and Ma, a callow youth who has been in the U.S. less than a month and is still optimistic about the future, particularly because, as the plays opens, the Chinese labors have gone out on strike for higher wages to match those paid whites doing the same jobs.
The production was such a close collaboration between Hwang and the actors John Lone and Tzi Ma that the characters still carry those actors’ names. John Lone, who, like his fictional counterpart, had trained for Chinese opera, also directed and choreographed the production and even wrote the music for it, infusing the show with his own ethereal elegance.
Like Ma in the play, I was transfixed by him and although the conversations between Lone and the less-refined Ma offer plenty of laughs, I ached for the plight of those young men, so far from home and in a place that resembled so little of the heaven they’d imagined.
It's probably unfair to expect the current production to have the emotional charge that the original drew from the personalities and passions of the people who created it but the revival does have its virtues.
Mimi Lien’s set is lyrical in its simplicity and superbly lit by Jiyoun Chang. Composer Huang Ruo’s music is nicely evocative and May Adrales, assisted by Chinese opera consultant Qian Yi, has made the dance moves the highlight of the show and cast it with appealing actors.
Yuekun Wu has some lovely moments as Lone, even if he isn’t as soulful as John Lone was in the role. Ruy Iskandar lacks the earthiness that Ma brought to his namesake part but Iskandar has an engaging goofiness that almost makes up for that shortcoming.
Still, while much of the dance they perform is the same as the original's, the steps for me are just slightly off.