Review: ‘M. Butterfly’ Returns to Broadway on Heavier Wings

Still reading? O.K. In “M. Butterfly,” our not-so-bright Gallimard — a French embassy official stationed in Beijing in the 1960s — falls head over heels for Song, who he thinks is a woman but is really a fetching young dude in Suzie Wong drag. That Gallimard (and his real-life prototype, Bernard Boursicot, whose case became an international scandal in the mid-1980s) failed to register the imposture has been the subject of much bewildered speculation and many jokes. (Check out the priceless “Forbidden Broadway” parody of the show.)

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Excerpts from a Chinese opera featuring Song Liling, center, are dotted throughout “M. Butterfly.” Credit Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

In the latest incarnation of the tale, Song is not merely a man pretending to be a woman. He’s a man pretending to be a woman pretending to be man who is pretending to be a woman. Got that? Never mind. We’ll get back to it later.

This extra turn of the screw of pretense is also directly from the case history of Monsieur Boursicot (the subject of a fascinating book by The New York Times columnist Joyce Wadler). But for audiences who must digest an already complex story (did I mention that Song is a spy for the Chinese government?) within less than three hours of stage time, it’s a lot to assimilate.

There is another, even more distracting problem. Once we’ve seen Mr. Ha — who has a distinctly masculine cast of a jaw — in boy’s clothes early on (that’s when he says he’s a man who works in drag as an actor in a Beijing opera house), it’s impossible to unsee him as that boy. Which makes Gallimard, our deluded protagonist, appear even more mentally challenged than usual.

You could argue that such obtuseness is appropriate for a play that considers the blindness not only of love, but also of cultural and sexual imperialism. Yes, Gallimard, who has never had much luck with women before, is responding to the novelty of a beautiful actress improbably finding him attractive.

But more important to the play’s intriguing and ever timely central thesis is the fact that Song is Asian, perceived as a fragile lotus blossom waiting to be plucked by virile white hands, like the doomed heroine of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly,” Gallimard’s favorite opera. Such, it seems, is the West’s vision of the East.

Mr. Hwang more than implicitly compares Gallimard’s dim vision regarding his love object to the unrealistic beliefs that Western countries hold about the East. That includes the presumption that Vietnam would fall in a swoon before the manly forces of the United States. Song, whose mission as a spy is to elicit information from Gallimard about France’s involvement in Vietnam, speaks scornfully of a Western self-image involving “big guns, big industry, big … well, you know your own fantasies.”

But for “M. Butterfly” to have emotional impact, it must make its audiences uneasily complicit in that fantasy. In this version, you always maintain the distance — sometimes amused, sometimes appalled — that’s generated by your awareness of theatrical machinery churning away.

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A scene from the play “M. Butterfly.” Credit Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Don’t blame Mr. Owen, who works skillfully and, well, manfully at becoming a wimp in a part memorably originated by John Lithgow (and played by Jeremy Irons in the 1993 film). Though he has established himself on screen as a thinking person’s hunk (“Children of Men,” “The Knick”), Mr. Owen is surprisingly convincing here as someone who could never get a date in high school.

The show’s broken master of ceremonies, whom we meet in a French prison cell many years after the events recounted here, Gallimard does his best to frame the story of his relationship with Song as a love story worthy of tragic opera. As Mr. Owen’s Gallimard struggles to make facts succumb to romantic fiction, his discomfort in his own skin glistens like flop sweat.

If only this production trusted more in its reliably unreliable narrator, and let us see a bit more through his bedazzled eyes. Instead, the show has a grinding Brechtian self-consciousness throughout, which calls harsh attention to its less than subtle ironies.

Mr. Ha’s arch Song seems to be all too demonstratively in on the cosmic joke being played on poor old Gallimard. Building up the role of Song’s shrill Communist party liaison (Celeste Den) was a mistake. Though Enid Graham is fine in the thankless part of Gallimard’s wife, the character of his macho best friend (Murray Bartlett) remains an annoying device.

Most disappointing for Ms. Taymor’s fans is the production’s lack of the ravishing visuals she brought to “The Lion King” and her more recent “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The tall, painted Chinese screens that frame each scene are alarmingly clunky and unsteady. (Paul Steinberg did the sets.)

The two centerpiece dance sequences, choreographed by Ma Cong, feel scrappy, like numbers from a pared-down touring production of “Miss Saigon.” And Elliot Goldenthal’s “original music and soundscapes” are usually more intrusive than evocative.

Such clumsiness sadly undermines a play that remains urgently relevant. Anyone doubting that Gallimard’s pipe dream of masculinity is still with us need only consult recent reports of the behavior of Hollywood moguls and American presidents or daily accounts of the United States military in quagmires on foreign soil.

But even if the romance at the heart of “M. Butterfly” is toxic, we still need to be swept up by the tide of this crazy infatuation. In this incarnation, we’re not being seduced, but preached at. And Gallimard’s grand self-sacrifice seems more pathetic and unnecessary than it ever did before.

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