David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly was the toast of Broadway in the 1987-1988 season, winning Tony awards for the author, director John Dexter and co-star B.D. Wong, and enjoying an enviably long run. David Cronenberg’s little-seen 1993 film version, with a miscast Jeremy Irons and John Lone, drained its stage magic. You would think that Julie Taymor, the lion queen, would restore that quality in its first revival. But this is an unsatisfying hybrid of the original spellbinder and Hwang’s “woke” take on the material, for audiences more familiar with Caitlyn Jenner than Bruce.
Hwang, who freely adapted his play from a true story, put more of the actual history into this rethinking. The main characters remain Rene Gallimard (Clive Owen), a French diplomat posted to China, and the entrancing Song Liling (Jin Ha), a diva with the Peking Opera. To the strains of his beloved Puccini, the unhappily married Gallimard falls headlong into an affair with Song, his ideal of an Asian woman. But he will prove the duped one as their idiosyncratic personal opera spans 20 years, from the Vietnam War era to Paris in the 1980s, for Song is a Communist agent – and a man.
While Gallimard (one of John Lithgow’s signature roles) took more of the spotlight originally, Song has more to do now, notably an elaborate performance of a Peking Opera standard that counterpoints the clichés of Madame Butterfly. Regrettably, Song also has more to say, as Hwang has incorporated “toxic masculinity” and “intersectionality” into the show. Song has a lot on his mind about gender, and more time than is necessary is spent on his unpacking it, in a way that’s anachronistic for the period. More confusingly, Gallimard no longer sees Song as a woman, as he once did from the start, but as a man playacting women – then later convinces himself that Song is female. These additions, including an explicit courtroom explanation of how Song pulled off the deception in the bedroom, deaden the mysteries of the show. We’re no longer absorbing M. Butterfly – it’s being lectured at us. In the part that catapulted Wong to theatrical stardom, Ha works hard with little to show for it.
These deficiencies would matter less if Taymor gave us something compelling to look at. But the large and clunky flat panels that dominate the set, bearing images of chinoiserie and communism, move as awkwardly as the storyline, which halts for the musical numbers. (The ill-fated Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark had similar issues; maybe it’s time for the director to return to mammals.) Owen, unconvincing as a man who can’t attract women, is more of a host than an active participant, and the supporting cast is weak. Subjected to dissection, this Butterfly is missing its wings.