Face Value, the much-awaited world premiere written by David Henry Hwang, promises "a place to start building your world." In fact, what the author of M. Butterfly offers us is in this play is a place not exactly in our world, but in a different, utopian world, where race is recognized as a mythic construction and an obstruction to human relationship. The progression from reality to fantasy is both the strongest and weakest point of the play. That the play starts as realistic political narrative and ends up as utopian romance signals the unlikelihood of racism disappearing anytime soon and the necessity for optimism; it also allows for wonderful comic twists as the play ascends into farce in the second act.
But the play's desire to be programmatic in giving us "a place to build our world," its insistence on dropping reality-checks in the middle of farce, borders dangerously on didacticism. Not only is the art better without the straight political messages, the politics are also more interesting. At his best, Hwang lets his characters embody race relations in America today: A white supremacist declares deadpan, "I consider myself on the cutting edge of racism"; a white actor declares empathetically, "I know what it's like to hate all white men," to which a bigoted professor responds, "What else does it take to be part of a minority group today?"
But other times, Hwang forgets the cardinal rule and lets his characters tell rather than show; Randall spells out, "This change in appearance has somehow changed the inner man." In impeding the otherwise rich evolution of plot and character with soapbox monologues, Face Value underestimates its audience. Hopefully, much of the speechifying will be cut as Face Value continues its pre-Broadway engagement at the Colonial Theatre, so that nothing detracts from the attention the plot and characters deserve.
The play begins on the opening night of a controversial Broadway musical entitled The Real Manchu, in which a white actor in yellow face plays the lead instead of an Asian. If this sounds familiar, that's because Hwang has found a forum to wreak delicious vengeance on Miss Saigon. The offensive and not very creative British extravaganza is only the point of departure for Face Value, however, which goes backstage at The Real Manchu to explore the interactions between self-absorbed actor, self-absorbed producer, wise-cracking stage manager, disguised Asian protesters and undercover white supremacist terrorists. The cast is terrific across the board. Mark Linn-Baker is especially funny as the actor who has embraced method acting so completely that he thinks he's an ancient Chinese emperor; Mia Korf plays a dynamic Linda Anne Wing, the politically fervent actress brazen enough to disrupt The Real Manchu in protest.
Direction, by the acclaimed Jerry Zaks, seems strongest when the scenes demand the most. When the quickest pace and the most chaotic action are required, Zaks orchestrates the madness beautifully. Occasionally, however, when things are at less than fever pitch, the action seems stagy, or just not very engaging; the very first scene, in which the two Asian actors introduce their plan to sneak into The Real Manchu in white face, is the least interesting five minutes of the whole play, in terms of both writing and directing. The actors seem to still be finding their beats, and laughs get lost in the process.
Some of the set design by Loy Arcenas is ingenious, like the wall of Chinese faces with moving eyes and the emperor's throne in The Real Manchu set-within-a-set. Costume designer William Ivey Long demonstrates his creative gift particularly with spectacular Chinese robes and headdress for The Real Manchu outfits and convincingly WASPy clothes for Linda. Combined, this crew and cast have the most Tonys, Obies, and Drama Desk awards imaginable; with some reworking and refining, the deck is stacked for them on Broadway.