David Henry Hwang's autobiographical new play begins as a diverting, fast-paced backstage comedy before turning into a somber, sluggish drama involving politics and an international banking scandal. Needless to say, the first act is considerably more enjoyable than the second.
The play opens with Hwang (Hoon Lee) recalling his protest against the casting of an Englishman, Jonathan Pryce, as a Eurasian in Miss Saigon. Actor's Equity took Hwang's side, and the production was canceled. Eventually, Equity reversed its decision, and the musical went on-with Pryce. Hwang wrote a farce, Face Value, about the experience and had trouble finding the right Asian-American actor for a leading role. The part went to a Caucasian named Marcus (Noah Bean), who somehow convinced Hwang and the casting agents that he was part Asian.
Yellow Face reaches its comic highpoint when Hwang desperately tries to convince himself and others that Marcus is Eurasian. (Marcus is Jewish, with Siberian ancestry-and everyone knows that Siberia is right next to Asia!) Marcus gets fired from Face Value , which flops, but later makes a name for himself in the Yul Brynner role in The King and I. That prompts Hwang to call the actor an ethnic tourist.
The playwright is at least as tough on himself, however, and isn't afraid to paint an unflattering self-portrait. He also provides an amusing portrayal of flamboyant actor B.D. Wong (played with flair by Francis Jue), who starred in Hwang's Tony-winning M. Butterfly. Unfortunately, in the second act the plot veers off in a very different, much more serious direction. The play gets bogged down in a tale of illegal campaign contributions and banking improprieties that involves Hwang's father (also played by Jue). One long scene involves the younger Hwang being interviewed about his involvement in the bank by an unnamed New York Times reporter (Anthony Torn), who is portrayed as a stock villain.
As the play becomes more serious, director Leigh Silverman lets the pacing slow down. Despite a strong ensemble that features Julienne Hanzelka Kim, Kathryn A. Layng and Lucas Caleb Rooney in multiple roles, Yellow Face loses its focus and becomes less entertaining as it nears its weighty conclusion. First produced by L.A.'s Center Theatre Group, the show offers funny moments, a fine cast, and provocative thoughts on race-blind casting, racism, and ethnic identity. But it's a shame Hwang loses his way in the sober-minded second act, which almost feels like a completely different play after the lighter, funnier first act.