FACE VALUE Comedy by David Henry Hwang. Directed by Jerry Zaks. At the Colonial Theatre through Feb. 28.
WHEN the musical "Miss Saigon" moved from London to Broadway in 1990, Chinese-American playwright David Henry Hwang launched a vociferous protest against the producers' casting decision. A white British actor had been brought over to play a lead role, that of the Eurasian brothel owner. Mr. Hwang was reported in U.S. News & World Report as saying, "I thought the yellow-face days of Charlie Chan and Fu Manchu were dead."
It seems the playwright has brought Fu, the Oriental arch villain of B-movies, to life again in his new play, "Face Value," which substitutes one-liners and vaudeville shtick for brickbats and angry faxes. In it, Hwang tries to achieve with comedy what he failed to do in his earlier campaign: make a lasting contribution to the debate over multiracial casting.
Unfortunately, the play, which is in pre-Broadway tryout here, fails to register as either comedy or protest. It's a confusing mixture of farce and Pirandellian asides, and it skims across important issues without once dipping below the surface. The plot is so tangled that I got lost trying to explain it to a colleague: Hwang concocts not one but several plays-within-a-play. The main part deals with two Chinese-Americans, a woman and man, who plan to disrupt the opening night of "The Real Manchu" - a gli tzy, offensive, and politically incorrect musical that stars a silly Caucasian actor in yellow-face makeup. The Asian couple paint on white faces and become part of the white majority as they make their way into the theater incognito.
The various mishaps and mistaken identities that result from their activities quickly degenerate into all-out, frenzied, pointless wackiness. To his credit, Hwang seems to poke fun at his own high-minded efforts to confront racist stereotyping of Asians and other minorities.
BUT on the issue of colorblind casting, it's not clear what message is being sent: Should only Asians play Asians? Do Asians accept and understand what their own ethnicity means? Is there a specific quality that an Asian (or native American or African-American) brings to an ethnic portrayal that is lost if that role is taken by a person of a different race? Does that mean that minority actors should not be cast in Western dramas about whites and vice versa? Or should directors cast whomever they think is
best for the role, regardless of race? How can people, as the play's pat ending would have it, love others and not take them at face value?
These are questions that, because of the shallow treatment, the play simply cannot answer. (I'm haunted by the thought that I may have missed a significant chunk of symbolism in a dream sequence, when the Chinese-American man writhes downstage and mutters about shedding his mask, his identity.) It did seem as though the playwright was reaching for something more profound.
Despite heroic measures by the cast (headed by Mark Linn-Baker of TV's "Perfect Strangers"), "Face Value" doesn't look to have a long life ahead of it. The director, Jerry Zaks, is an experienced hand on Broadway, having brought distinction to "Six Degrees of Separation" and "Guys and Dolls." It's hard to figure out what he saw in this play. As for Hwang, whose talent was clearly proven in his 1988 drama, "M. Butterfly," which was engrossing and well-written, farce isn't his forte.