NEW YORK — "Golden Child," the new drama by Chinese-American playwright David Henry Hwang, takes place mostly in China during the late 1910s. The central character is an amiable patriarch with three competitive wives, one self-centered daughter, and a newfound interest in the Christianity preached by a missionary he's just met.
Much of the play centers on the different meanings this Westernized religion has for the members of this Eastern household. For the husband, it's a gateway to a modern life liberated from ancestor worship and the chains of tradition. For his youngest wife, it's a mysterious force to be dealt with in ways that gratify her husband. For the oldest wife, it's a dangerous threat to the order and stability of their household. For the middle wife, it's a wedge that can be driven between the master of the home and the other two spouses, who claim more than their fair share of his attention.
All of which is to say that "Golden Child" is as much about the contemporary United States as about China some 75 years ago. Then as now, religion was both a spiritual force in people's lives and a human institution that can be manipulated for personal gain. Then as now, the relationship between women and power was heatedly debated inside and outside the home. Then as now, the question of where human dignity ultimately lies - in the integrity of the individual or the cohesion of a social group - raised questions no ideology could satisfactorily answer.
Hwang spotlights the contemporary resonances of his drama by starting and ending it in the back seat of a present-day New York taxicab, where the family memories of a Chinese-American man are jolted into consciousness by a "born again" religious slogan the driver has plastered on his car.
The play's most involving material clusters around issues of what it means to be born again in a spiritual sense - as preached by the English minister who can't wait to baptize his Chinese friends - and a historical sense, as forward-thinking Chinese people look for ways of entering a new era dominated by Western values.
"Golden Child" is not likely to cause as much stir as Hwang's controversial "M. Butterfly" did a few years ago. Still, he thoughtfully probes the topics he raises, weaving them into a domestic story that grows increasingly melodramatic until enough destructive and self-destructive acts have occurred to match the music from "La Traviata" that provides one of the play's motifs.
The second act is at once too talky and too crowded with extravagant events, from an opium addict's death to a ghost scene that hovers between dream and reality. The drama as a whole is absorbing at best and merely overzealous at worst, however, and deserves praise for its earnest exploration of how religious ideas and institutions may operate as living forces in societies undergoing changes they are only beginning to understand.
"Golden Child" continues through Dec. 1 at the Joseph Papp Public Theater, where James Lapine has directed its world premire with keen attention to Chinese visual details but not quite enough rhythmic energy to keep its momentum up during wordy stretches of the second half. The cast is strong, with special credit going to Stan Egi and Julyana Soelistyo for playing two roles apiece during the mid-'90s and pre-'20s portions of the play. Tsai Chin, Jodi Long, and Liana Pai play the wives, and John Christopher Jones is rousingly good as the missionary who represents currents of thought more vast than anyone in the story can recognize.
*Following its New York engagement, 'Golden Child' will play Jan. 3-Feb. 9 at the South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, Calif., which commissioned Hwang to write the play.