Midway through the first act of “Yellow Face,” playwright David Henry Hwang pokes fun at the overheated, on the noise, political pontifications you often hear in the theater. Then, for much of the second act, he engages in much of the same in this frustrating, tale-of-two-plays new work, which is receiving its Midwest premiere from Mu Performing Arts.
The elements are all in place. Hwang is perfectly poised to write about race in America from an Asian-American perspective. Mu has assembled a terrific cast. And the production at the Guthrie’s Dowling Studio crackles with energy under the direction of Rick Shiomi.
And for the first act, the piece flies. The autobiographical piece follows the playwright from the protests over the casting of Welsh actor Jonathan Price as the Engineer in the Broadway production of “Miss Saigon” to his first attempt to craft a response, “Face Value.”
Here, Hwang starts to twist reality by introducing Marcus, a young white actor, who in a series of modern farcical mix-ups ends up cast as the Asian lead in “Face Value.” To save his reputation, Hwang crafts a cover story for Marcus, who in turn takes it and runs, becoming a strong spokesman for the Asian-American community.
The problems come up when the Marcus character disappears for long stretches of act two, as Hwang turns to a series of congressional investigations and accusations of spying that ripped through the Chinese-American community in the 1990s. It’s strong material for a play, but it sits uncomfortably with where Hwang had gone in the first half of the play. It also leaves aside the subtle touches that marked the earlier sections for a pure polemic. Great for a letter to the editor, not so much for a play.
Keeping it all afloat is the cast, led by Randy Reyes as DHH and featuring strong performances from the rest of the ensemble, who all work hard to bring depth or broad humor to wherever it is needed. Director Rick Shiomi leads a production that emphasizes clarity, which also helps to bring out the best of the work.
“Yellow Face” runs through Feb. 21 at the Dowling Studio at the Guthrie Theater, 818 S. 2nd St., Minneapolis. Tickets are $18-$30. For information and tickets, call 612-377-2224 or visit online.