The winner of three Obie Awards in playwriting and a third-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, writer David Henry Hwang has earned his place as a leading Asian playwright. To cement his stature, In fact, he was the first Asian-American playwright to win a Tony for “M. Butterfly.” YELLOW FACE is a semi-autobiographical play about Hwang himself as he mounts his 1993 play “Face Value.” The “unreliable memoir,” to quote Hwang, confronts issues of race, politics, and media with brave and biting humor. Hwang leaves few stones unturned in his careful exploration of situations which are inherently funny – but also poignantly sad.
The play opens with the 1990 “Miss Saigon” controversy, in which the leading Asian male role has been given to Jonathan Pryce, a white English actor. This does not sit well with Hwang (Jeffrey Sun) – or, for that matter, with any of his Asian-American colleagues. Despite Hwang’s best efforts, the play steams ahead with Pryce and becomes a stage blockbuster. Three years later, Hwang is getting ready to present his newest play, “Face Value,” a story revolving around an Asian superhero. Through a massive blunder, he accidentally casts the lead role with Marcus G. Dahlman (Roman Moretti), a Caucasian actor. When his mistake threatens to go public, he tries to cover up his boondoggle – with a name change (Marcus Gee) and a fabricated history which turns Marcus into a Siberian Jewish Eurasian.
But then something funny happens. Even as he is fired from “Face Value,” Marcus decides that he likes being Asian and becomes a leading advocate of all things Asian – much to Hwang’s chagrin. To add insult to injury, Marcus moves in with Hwang’s former girlfriend and achieves fame and fortune by playing the Asian lead in “The King and I.” Things couldn’t get worse – and then they do. Hwang’s father (Alfonso Faustino), a Chinese immigrant who came to the U.S. with nothing and achieved the American dream, is being investigated as a Chinese spy who is laundering Chinese ill-gotten gains through his American bank.
Director Robert Zimmerman has done a bang-up job of helming this intricate tale about being Asian-American in the U.S. mainstream. Laughs are mingled with tender and painful moments, and the intriguing story moves ahead with purpose. Except for Jeffrey Sun, who remains Hwang throughout, the rest of the excellent cast play multiple roles with convincing ease. Special kudos to Alfonso Faustino, who leaps from role to role with lightning speed and enticing aplomb. Rick Allen’s set is simple but also fluid. As the involving account proceeds, the row of chairs fade and the focus becomes the actors and their lines.
YELLOW FACE is an absorbing tale about the American culture then and now – a culture in which racial issues have yet to be resolved. This would be an especially fascinating show for students of Asian studies, giving them the opportunity to see the very personal emotions which underlie words like “prejudice” and “race.” YELLOW FACE will have people discussing racial, political, and ethical conundrums long after the curtain comes down.
YELLOWFACE runs through September 26, 2018, with performances at 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and at 2 p.m. on Sundays. The Beverly Hills Playhouse is located at 254 S. Robertson Blvd., Beverly Hills, CA 90212. Tickets are $30 ($20 seniors). For reservations, go online.