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A CurtainUp Review
Golden Child -- 1996, 1998, 2012
By Elyse Sommer
The Original Reviews
Golden Child's Premiere at the Public Theater -- 1996 Every family has one switchboard, the person who keeps and re-tells the family history and maintains the connections. In David Henry Hwang's family that switchboard was his Chinese-born maternal grandmother. While his father, a banker who emigrated to Southern California in 1948 had little interest in his Chinese past, his grandmother regaled him with tales of the family'sconversion to Christianity. The tales have found a new and quite different life in his writing.
His 1981 play, Family Devotions), expressed his frustration with his Christian fundamentalist upbringing in the form of an absurdist farce. In Golden Child, Hwang again reflects on his family's Christianity. However, his look at the story of his great-grandfather's conversion is much more sympathetic and without any farcical underpinnings. Instead we have an engaging and at times powerful family drama.
Like his wildy successful M. Butterfly, this is also a drama of politics, gender and the effect of the Western on the Eastern culture but with the intrigues taking place on the intimate stage of a family household, albeit a lavish and complicated one.
Hwang has peopled this domestic stage with three-dimensional people who are interesting, intelligent and, like anyone facing drastic changes, insecure. There are few surprises, except the emotions aroused by the generally fine cast, and the panorama of movingand often funny scenes that unfold in the various rooms of Tony Straiges' stunning set. What we have is a play fluidly directed by James Lapine that works on two levels--as the story of a particular Chinese family taking its first painful steps into the twentieth century and as the universal story of how new values intrude on tradition and family harmony.
The four key players in the family struggle are Tieng-Bin who has come in contact with the Western world during his business travels, his three wives, and the daughter of his first wife — -the "golden child" of the title. She is the father's favorite, and he tells she "can be whatever she wants."
The plot, such as it is, revolves around the reaction of Tieng-Bin's wives to his flirtation with a new faith. Even before we meet the missionary who has been invited by Tien-Bin to visit his home to discuss the conversion, we sense that Tieng-Bin's attraction to Western religion has a subtext related to his yearning for independence. The Western Christians he's met in Manilla allow themselves to take risks and pursue their own needs instead of fulfilling filial obligations as he does. He is torn between what he's seen and what he's always been. His plaintive declaration that "in the house of his birth a man is always a child" underscores it. His parents chose his two first wives, and he must hide his yearning for the third wife he chose himself so as not to offend the other two.
The wives, in elegant costumes by Martin Pakledinaz, are visually delightful. The potential change in the family belief system poses different challenges to each. All are ably portrayed: the first wife by Tsai Chin , the second wife by Jodi Long and the third wife by Llana Pa.. Ms.Chin, who became everyone's favorite aunt as Auntie Lindo in The Joy Luck Club, is the most memorable of the three. Having succumbed to the lure of opium, she is a tragic figure, but she's also strong, and often funny. The audience laughs at her declaration "I can only be honest with people for whom I've lost all respect" and at the same time sees her tough adaptability and strength. The scene when her husband confronts her about her opium habit is heart-wrenching as is the one in which she unbinds her young daughter's feet. The last comes as a result of Tieng-Bin's desire to have his daughter freed from one of his ancestors' most cruel customs. But as Siu-Yong gently undoes the bandages, she tells her child ""daughter, you don't know what a terrible gift is freedom." She's also smart enough to realize that Ahn's can only maintain her favorite child status by becoming a Christian. This advice turns this young child "whose tongue is still unbound" into the grandmother who confuses Christian belief with respect for one's roots. The abruptness of this metamorphoses is the play's major dramatic fault line.
Jody Long conveys all the insecurities of the second wife, and by extension any second wife or even a middle child or second-in-command in any situation. Llana Pai's third wife, who would seem to have nothing to fear and everything to gain from her husband's yearnings for modernity, nevertheless reflects his yearning to be modern but also Chinese. There's a wonderful scene in her house where Tieng-Bin dances with her taking the lead because "that's how American men dominate."
John Christopher makes the most of his peripheral role as the missionary. And Julyana Soelistyo is endearing and effective as the young "Golden Child" and as the ghost of the modern American narrator's grandmother in the present-day scenes.
As the aged "Golden Child" is the literary stand-in for the playwright's own (and still living) grandmother, so Andrew, the narrator (also played by Stan Eng), is his own stand-in. The black business suit each wears in his initial scenes draw a visual line connecting the questions that nag them vis-à-vis their roots and their desire to be part ofthe new world.
The America-now sets, by the way, are as striking as the Chinese pagoda-like houses of the middle and major section.The modern scenes per se, work well enough as the sandwich covers for the 1918-19 drama, but their use as a device is somewhat too obvious. Perhaps, one day, Mr. Hwang will find a way to tell the untold story of the most interesting character in this play--that of the Golden Child..
Public Theater Production Notes
The play was directed by by James Lapine<
Cast: Tsai Chin (Eng Siu-Yond), Stan Egi (Andrew Kwong/Eng Tieng-Bin), John Christopher Jones (Rev Baines), Jodi Long (Eng Luan), Liana Pai (Eng Eling), Julyana Soelistyo (Eng Ahn)
Sets: Tony Straiges
Costumes: Martin Pakledinaz
Lighting, David J. Lander
Sound: Dan Moses Schreier
Projections: Wendall K. Harrington
Joseph Papp Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival /Newman Theatre
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer
Golden Child On Broadway -- 1998
Golden Child won a performance and playwriting OBIEs for Tsai Chin and, David Henry Hwang and a Clarence Derwent Award for Juliana Soelisty after its run at the Public Theater, despite decidedly mixed reviews. Most of the negative comments related to the awkwardness of the opening and closing scenes set in contemporary New York. The move to Broadway involved recasting and rewriting during a series of out-of-town tryouts (including a very well-received run in Singapore).
Now the play has returned to New York for a Broadway run. While a play can be improved, there can also be so much diddling around either make things worse or prove the game of rewriting to be hardly worth the candle. Fortunately the main strengths of the original are intact so our original review stands.
The play still focuses on the flashback to China, circa 1918 and the conflict between tradition and change as depicted through one man's family. The actors who made the strongest contribution to the play's pleasures, have reprised their roles in this production — Tsai Chin as the first and most dramatically important of the three wives and Julyana Soelistyo in her dual role as the play's title character and as the narrator Andrew's grandmother.
Director James Lapine continues at the helm and the physical production is beautiful as ever with the same set, lighting and costume designers in place. Alas, all the rewriting — making the narrator older, having grandmother appear in a dream instead of as a vision in a taxicab —- has done little to dispel the quibbles that sent Mr. Hwang back to his computer keyboard to begin with. The general consensus seems even more mixed than for the original Off-Broadway production.
Like so many writers of a first-time-around-the-block super hit, Hwang's biggest problem in winning critical support is not whether the Broadway version is better than the Off-Broadway one, but whether whatever he does can measure up to the slam-bang dramatic impact of his M. Butterfly. By having grandma pop up in a dream instead of the original taxicab, he now has given himself another burden of having his dream compared to Teyve's sleep visit to his ancestors in Fiddler on the Roof.
In the final analysis, this new Golden Child may well find enough of an audience to enjoy a substantial Broadway run, not so much in spite of the so-so critical reception but because this seems to be a season for a heartening receptivity to dramas.
Broadway Production Notes
Golden Cild again directed by James Lapine and with the same design team (minus the project design)
With: (bold-faced names represent reprise-performances from the production at the Public Theater): Randall Duk Kim (Eng Tieng-Bin), Tsai Chin (Eng Siu-Yong), Ming-Na Wen (Eng Eling), John Horton (Reverend Anthony Baines), Julyana Soelistyo (Ma and Eng Ahn), Kim Miyori (Eng Luan); also: Lisa Li, James Saito, Julienne Hanzelka Kim. Longacre,220 W. 48th St. (212/239-6200) From 3/14/98; closed 5/31/98 Tony nomination as Best Play of 1998,
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