Martini Talk: Yellow Face, Cymbeline & Growing Up 70s
Take a look at an actor's resume and you might find listed, along with height, weight and eye color, their age range. While an actor's age range, the approximate age they look without extensive make-up, is usually in the vicinity of their actual age, there are nevertheless people in their 30's who may look more like teenagers and 15-year-olds who easily pass for 25. What you look like on stage is more important than what you actually are.
Can the same apply to race? Would it be inappropriate for an actor's resume to include the races he or she can reasonably resemble without make-up? Can it ever be completely acceptable for actors to play people of different races using respectable, non-caricature make-up? If a character is multi-racial, could it be more appropriate to cast it with an actor of one of those races than another? And would your answers to these questions be completely different if we lived in a society where people of all races have equal opportunity?
Those are some of the questions you might find yourself pondering after seeing David Henry Hwang's Yellow Face, one of the smartest, trickiest, most provocative and absolutely funniest plays to hit New York this year. Hwang, you may recall, was heavily involved in the protest again having white actor Jonathan Pryce repeat his West End leading role as the Eurasian Engineer in Miss Saigon when the musical came to Broadway. At that time Actor's Equity was dealing with the problem of lack of job opportunities for non-white actors and though Pryce's status as a recognizable star – a factor that would help increase ticket sales – would usually mean automatically accepting his employment in the states, the union initially insisted that producer Cameron Mackintosh replace him with an Asian member of the American union. After a heavily publicized battle Pryce did open with Miss Saigon on Broadway and two years later Hwang responded with Face Value, a comedy about a white actor cast in the starring role in a musical about Fu Manchu, which closed in Broadway previews.
In Yellow Face, a play that blends fact and fiction, Hwang places himself center stage in the form of actor Hoon Lee and isn't afraid to poke fun at himself in this highly satirical recounting of the whole mess. The focus here is how Hwang casts actor Marcus G. Dahlman (Noah Bean) as the Asian lead in Face Value. Though his associates claim Dahlman doesn't look Asian, nor does his name sound Asian, Hwang argues back that they have an outsider's perception of what all Asians should look like and that mixed race marriages have given many Asian-Americans non-Asian names. But when it's discovered that the fellow is 100% white, the playwright is placed in a position where he wants to fire someone who he previously deemed totally qualified to do his job because of his race.
As the actor becomes a spokesperson for racial equality and the playwright finds himself having to defend his beliefs against such statements as, "It doesn't matter what someone looks like on the outside," ("I was an Asian-American role model back when you were Caucasian!," the exasperated author bellows.) a subplot involving Hwang's father (who really was the founder of the first Asian-American-owned federally chartered bank in the continental United States) comes to the forefront as his transactions with Chinese banks are suspected as sources of illegal campaign contributions and funds for Chinese espionage. As the play smoothly glides from farce to more sobering drama, Hwang uses this incident as an example of how Asians, no matter how assimilated into American culture, are still perceived as "other."
A talented ensemble of five (Francis Jue, Julienne Hanzelka Kim, Kathryn A. Layng, Lucas Caleb Rooney and Anthony Torn) play a multitude of roles, both fictional and real (B.D. Wong, Jane Krakowski and Mark-Linn Baker, among others), freely crossing racial and gender lines in director Leigh Silverman's crisp production that smoothly blends farce and realism. Jue's performance as the senior Hwang is both touching and comical as he defends his dream of success in America with his son's conflicting ideals. Hoon's performance as Hwang is just outstanding, mixing an erudite persona with a grass roots ambition to make a difference in the world. His frustrations in dealing with Marcus (Bean is believably oblivious to any problems as the actor just trying to make good on his big break.) are just hilarious and his love for his father, despite their friction, is genuine.
Yellow Face is easily David Henry Hwang's best work since winning the Tony for M. Butterfly. It offers no answers, but throws out a lot of questions in a manner that's clever, unexpected and, under the laughter, deeply human.
Okay, so maybe Shakespeare's Cymbeline isn't exactly another Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet, but director Mark Lamos' positively gorgeous production at the Beaumont, despite a smattering of WTF moments (and by WTF I don't mean Williamstown Theatre Festival) has got a lot going for it and in the end balances out to quite an enjoyable evening.
Set in a mythical version of Britain, Cymbeline is another one of those Shakespeare romances where the guy can do whatever disgusting thing he wants to the strong, independent woman who loves him without losing her devotion. In this case the lovers are Imogen (Martha Plimpton), the daughter of King Cymbeline (John Cullum), who has married the poor Posthumus (Michael Cerveris with a lot of hair) despite her father's wishes to set her up with a comic relief character, the self-admiring Lord Cloten (Adam Dannheisser), who is the son of the king's second wife; a woman so evil and devious that she doesn't even have a name (Phylicia Rashad). Posthumus gets exiled to Italy (which really doesn't seem like much of a punishment when you consider how much better the food and wine is over there) where he meets Roman soldier Iachimo (Jonathan Cake) and the two guys wager whether Iachimo can seduce Posthumus' wife. (I imagine Posthumus was confident he'd win because apparently the last time Iachimo made a bet he lost his shirt.) The ensuing complications involve a bloody war, long lost relatives, an innocent man banished and Imogen disguising herself as a boy, as Shakespeare's heroines so love to do. There is also a quite magnificent moment of spectacle that might nevertheless cause you to smirk a bit if you keep in mind that Lamos was the director of Miss Saigon.
The always interesting Martha Plimpton is the central figure of the production, playing a wonderful mixture of strength, intelligence and delicacy. Cerveris and Cake both do fine work as the outraged husband and sexy villain, but John Cullum, wearing his regal grace with a natural dignity and ease (I love the way he lightly rolls his r's.) is the male standout. Uncharacteristically for Phylicia Rashad, a fine stage actress, she seems out of her element her, playing the queen with a cartoonish fury. Playing her preening son, Dannheisser gets most of his laughs from giving lines contemporary sounding readings. He does it well (and he isn't the only character who does so) but it seems out of place.
Designers Michael Yeargan (set), Jess Goldstein (costumes) and Brian MacDevitt (lights) and composer Mel Marvin beautifully create a style for the production that mixes majesty with romance. A dazzling moment, where the lovesick Imogen literally gets lost in the stars, is enough to set the coldest heart aflutter.
While some former child stars have tried distancing themselves from the roles that turned them into household names, Barry Williams, who has starred on Broadway in Pippin and Romance/Romance cheerfully embraces the inevitability that to a television-lovin' nation he will always be oldest brother Greg, who grew from adolescent to teen hunk before our very eyes on The Brady Bunch. And though Growing Up 70s, the nostalgic Off-Broadway revue built around him, features a bright and energetic cast of young singers and dancers, the best part of the show comes when Williams, now in his early 50's, shares his observations about being a part of American popular culture when it began evolving from the wholesomeness of The Brady Bunch to the honesty of All In The Family and the cynicism of M*A*S*H (at least in its early seasons) and Saturday Night Live. Williams has a sense of humor about himself which wears nicely with his strong baritone and relaxed charm. He's been doing a lot of stage work during the past 30 years and you may be surprised to see what a capable and personable musical theatre performer he's become.
But Growing Up 70s isn't a cultural dissertation. The pocket-sized musical created by Anthony Dinapoli and Chuck Nice and scripted by Jason Summers (who directed) and Jim Mendrinos is brainless fun. Admittedly, it frequently teeters into more brainless than fun, but the affection that Williams and his cast mates seem to have for the material is enough to reasonably smooth out the bumps. It's amazing what you might find yourself chucking at when everyone on stage seems to be having a good time.
Act I is primarily a sketch comedy spoof of 1970's sitcoms lightly touching on the cultural clashes of the time. Williams plays a suburban dad with a wife (Leslie E. Hughes) who does housework while wearing a trendy dress, a fashionable apron and pearls. Their daughter (Lauren Marcus), who dreams of marrying a teen idol and having at least four children so they can start a band together, has a new friend (Sara J. Blackmore) who is more into the Sex Pistols and hating the establishment. Their oldest son (Paul Wyatt) also has a new buddy (Kenny M. Green) who wants to introduce him to the scene at Studio 54. Meanwhile, little Patrick (Trevor Braun, who was the longest running "Chip" when Beauty and the Beast played Broadway) just wants to stare at the TV all day. Chris Alderete and Candace Reyes Newton round out the cast in various roles.
About on the same comedic level as a sketch from The Brady Bunch Variety Hour, the first act is more cute than funny with most of the humor coming from the mentioning of pet rocks, Room 222, the "ancient Chinese secret," red dye #2, Charlie's Angels, "dy-no-mite," pop rocks and several dozen more memories from that decade you may have forgotten, but Ronnie Dee's catchy collection of new songs, about loving rock music, dancing at the disco and living in a world of lava laps and mood rings while feeling nostalgic for the 50s, picks things up considerably. The strong singing cast looks great enthusiastically dancing to Leland Morrow's lively period choreography in costume designer Doreen Breen's colorful polyester prints on Kyle Dixon's kitschy set.
The second act, more of a variety show, really does have its clever moments, particularly in a bit where Barry Williams imagines all the iconic 70s movie roles he could have played if he wasn't typecast after The Brady Bunch. There's also an audience participation mini-version of Match Game but the bulk of this half is a concert of classic hits like "I Will Survive," "Love Will Keep Us Together," "Joy To The World," "Turn The Beat Around," "Drift Away," and "Proud Mary."
Growing Up 70s may seem a bit more like theme park entertainment than your standard Off-Broadway fare, but there's sweetness to the evening that's very entertaining. And if you did grow up during the 70s, you might find yourself swooning over Greg Brady all over again.
One thing I always wondered, though… since Michael and Carol Brady were widower and widow when they got married, didn't it seem odd to you that nobody ever talked about the two dead parents? Maybe a brief remembrance during a holiday episode might have been nice.
Michael Dale's Martini Talk appears every Monday and Thursday on BroadwayWorld.com.
Top Photo by Joan Marcus: Francis Jue and Hoon Lee in Yellow Face; Center Photo by Paul Kolnik: Martha Plimpton and Michael Cerveris in Cymbeline; Bottom Photo: The cast of Growing Up 70s: standing: Sara J. Blackmore, Kenney M. Green, Barry Williams, Trevor Braun, Paul Wyatt and Leslie E. Hughes; on floor: Lauren Marcus, Candace Reyes Newton and Chris Alderete.