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A CurtainUp Review
Golden Child -- 1996, 1998, 2012

David Henry Hwang's Golden Child Gets a New Production As Part of His Residency at the Pershing Square Signature Center

"Why can't you present yourself with your brothers and sisters?"—Eng Tieng Bin "Because I am a golden child. "— Ahn
Golden Child
Julyana Soelistyo and Annie Q
(Photo: Richard Termine)
It's been more than a dozen years since I first saw this play at the Public Theater where it won several OBIE awards but few all-out raves. I saw it again when it moved to Broadway where it received a Tony nomination. but lasted only a couple of months. Despite the flaws in both the original and the revised version on Broadway, I always liked the play and I'm glad that it's getting yet another chance to get it all right as part of David Henry Hwang's residency at the beautiful Pershing Square Signature Center

The problem that dogged the previous versions directed by James Lapine was the way to lead into and out of the story of the playwright's family conversion to Christianity in Fujan, China between 1918 and 1919. The original production set the scene in contemporary America before playing out the bulk of the action in the pagoda-like houses of Hwang's forbears. The use of the American scenes to bookend the drama of the changes taking place in Fujan was effective enough but too schematic to be smooth and natural.

Hwang reworked the play for the Broadway production. He retained the flashback device but made his stand-in/narrator older and, instead of having the grandmother appear as a vision in a taxicab, turned her into a dream figure. These changes exacerbated rather than solved the original version's problems. The introduction of the dream grandma led to inevitable and unflattering comparisons to Teyve's famous dream in Fddler on the Roof.

While I was a bit iffy about seeing the play yet another time, I'm pleased to report that it holds up very well indeed. The plot remains unchanged. The action still focuses on four members of the playwright's family taking their first uneasy steps into the twentieth century. It also still works on a more universal level to show how a new value system tends to intrude on tradition and familial harmony. Happily, Mr. Hwang and Director Silverman seem to have deepened the main haracters and have found a way for the present day bookend scenes to flow more organically into and out of the main drama. Thus, my review of the original production still holds, but without the quibbles. I'm re-posting that review (followed by the Broadway review) and add some comments about the current cast and staging.

As you take enter the Jewel Box Theater, the stage is completely dark. When the play begins, lighting designer Matt Frey spotlights a bench taking up a small portion of the stage. Sitting on that bench are the patriarch Eng Tieng Bin's 14-year-old great grandson and his grandmother. The bench is located not in New York as in earlier versions but in Manila, the Philippines where the boy is spending the summer with his grandmother. He's brought along a cassette recorder hoping to record some interesting stories about his grandmother's youth when the family still lived in Fujian. The teenager on a summer getting to know a real rather than a fantasy grandmother works quite well to establish the 1918-19 past and the 1968 present.

Neil Patel's elegant single unit set accommodate both the Philippine scenes and the traumatic events in the spacious Fuian home makes for the sort of fluid fluid connection between both that eluded the previous productions. The two-story open courtyard allows the interactions to take place around a dinner tables as well as in Tin Tieng Bin's wives' bedrooms by having two actors as silent servants move a few props on and off stage. Anita Yavich's lush costumes add to the authentic and visually stunning pleasures of this production.

The grandmother Tin Bieng Bin's California born great grandson visits in Manila is, of course, the beloved "golden child" of the title and in a casting coup Julyana Solistyo, who created the role back in 1996, now plays the little girl grown old. When Greg Watanabe metamorphoses into his great-grandfather for the main story, Solistyo morphs into the young Eng Ahn's mother, the opium addicted first wife who tries to prevent her husband from becoming a Christian and with it, a modern man.

Solistyo and Watanabe pull the audience in with them as they assume their more substantive roles. The rest of the cast also contributes to the complex dynamics of a household in which tradition and modernity are on a collion course. Jennifer Lim, who was so terrific in Mr. Hwang's Chinglish last year is especially forceful as the scheming second wife Eng Luan. Lesley Hu is lovely and touching as Tin Tieng Ben's young third wife Eng Sin-Yung, who is thrilled to be his true love and wants to be part of his new life, but also yearns to still be Chinese. Anni Q makes an impressive debut as Eng Ahn, the latest "golden child" and Matthew Maher does well in the relatively minor role of the missionary, Reverand Baines.

As I already mentioned the main characters struck me as having been deepened. It's hard to pinpoint specific changes given the long interval between seeing the play initially and now. However, the shift in the emotional intensity is particularly noteworthy in the scene when Eng Siu-Yong, on being defeated in her protests against her husband's order to end foot binding, insists on being the one to remove her daughter's bandages. What was tough to watch but tender previously is now much more intense and angry, but with the horror and violence of that mitigated and justified by seeing the girl happily skipping about almost immediately after. The foot binding business did have me wonder why the three wives seemed to walk about without any visible evidence of the crippling effect of the barbarous custom with which all these women grew up.

I don't know if the dialogue has undergone any changes, but I was struck this time around at the contemporary flavor, especially first wife's dialogue. Besides adding more humor than I remember, listening to some of the interchanges now evoked a sense of watching a foreign language play done with a fresh, modern translation.

The play ends as aptly as it began, back on that park bench in Manilla where the Eng's next big step into modernity took them. Whether you've seen it before or not, Golden Child is a golden opportunity to catch two hours of solid entertaining theater.

Production Notes:
Golden Child< David Henry Hwang
Directed by Leigh Silverman
Cast: Tina Chilip (Servant / Ghost), Nadia Gan (Servant / Ghost,) Lesley Hu a(Eng Eling / third wife), Jennifer Lim (Eng Luan / second wife), Matthew Maher (Reverend Baines), Annie Q (Eng Ahn / daughter), Julyana Soelistyo (original Broadway cast - Eng Siu-Young / first wife), Greg Watanabe (Grandson / Eng Tieng Bin).
Sets: Neil Patel
Costumes: Anita Yavich
Lighting: Matt Frey
Sound: Darron L West
Projections: Darrel Maloney
Hair and Wigs: Tom Watson
Dialect Coach: Deb Hecht
Stage Manager: David H. Lurie
Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission
Signature Center's Alice Griffen Jewel Box Theatre 480 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues
From 10/23/12; opening 11/13/12; closing 12/02/12 -- extended and now closing 12/16/12 (those extended weeks not available at the $25 ticket, but $75).
23 Oct 2012. Tuesday - Friday at 7:30pm, Saturday at 2pm and 8pm, Sunday at 2pm Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes with intermission.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at November 9th press preview

The Original Reviews
Golden Child's Premiere at the Public Theater -- 1996 Every family has one switchboard, the person who keeps and re-tells the family history and maintains the connections. In David Henry Hwang's family that switchboard was his Chinese-born maternal grandmother. While his father, a banker who emigrated to Southern California in 1948 had little interest in his Chinese past, his grandmother regaled him with tales of the family'sconversion to Christianity. The tales have found a new and quite different life in his writing.

His 1981 play, Family Devotions), expressed his frustration with his Christian fundamentalist upbringing in the form of an absurdist farce. In Golden Child, Hwang again reflects on his family's Christianity. However, his look at the story of his great-grandfather's conversion is much more sympathetic and without any farcical underpinnings. Instead we have an engaging and at times powerful family drama.

Like his wildy successful M. Butterfly, this is also a drama of politics, gender and the effect of the Western on the Eastern culture but with the intrigues taking place on the intimate stage of a family household, albeit a lavish and complicated one.

Hwang has peopled this domestic stage with three-dimensional people who are interesting, intelligent and, like anyone facing drastic changes, insecure. There are few surprises, except the emotions aroused by the generally fine cast, and the panorama of movingand often funny scenes that unfold in the various rooms of Tony Straiges' stunning set. What we have is a play fluidly directed by James Lapine that works on two levels--as the story of a particular Chinese family taking its first painful steps into the twentieth century and as the universal story of how new values intrude on tradition and family harmony.

The four key players in the family struggle are Tieng-Bin who has come in contact with the Western world during his business travels, his three wives, and the daughter of his first wife — -the "golden child" of the title. She is the father's favorite, and he tells she "can be whatever she wants."

The plot, such as it is, revolves around the reaction of Tieng-Bin's wives to his flirtation with a new faith. Even before we meet the missionary who has been invited by Tien-Bin to visit his home to discuss the conversion, we sense that Tieng-Bin's attraction to Western religion has a subtext related to his yearning for independence. The Western Christians he's met in Manilla allow themselves to take risks and pursue their own needs instead of fulfilling filial obligations as he does. He is torn between what he's seen and what he's always been. His plaintive declaration that "in the house of his birth a man is always a child" underscores it. His parents chose his two first wives, and he must hide his yearning for the third wife he chose himself so as not to offend the other two.

The wives, in elegant costumes by Martin Pakledinaz, are visually delightful. The potential change in the family belief system poses different challenges to each. All are ably portrayed: the first wife by Tsai Chin , the second wife by Jodi Long and the third wife by Llana Pa.. Ms.Chin, who became everyone's favorite aunt as Auntie Lindo in The Joy Luck Club, is the most memorable of the three. Having succumbed to the lure of opium, she is a tragic figure, but she's also strong, and often funny. The audience laughs at her declaration "I can only be honest with people for whom I've lost all respect" and at the same time sees her tough adaptability and strength. The scene when her husband confronts her about her opium habit is heart-wrenching as is the one in which she unbinds her young daughter's feet. The last comes as a result of Tieng-Bin's desire to have his daughter freed from one of his ancestors' most cruel customs. But as Siu-Yong gently undoes the bandages, she tells her child ""daughter, you don't know what a terrible gift is freedom." She's also smart enough to realize that Ahn's can only maintain her favorite child status by becoming a Christian. This advice turns this young child "whose tongue is still unbound" into the grandmother who confuses Christian belief with respect for one's roots. The abruptness of this metamorphoses is the play's major dramatic fault line.

Jody Long conveys all the insecurities of the second wife, and by extension any second wife or even a middle child or second-in-command in any situation. Llana Pai's third wife, who would seem to have nothing to fear and everything to gain from her husband's yearnings for modernity, nevertheless reflects his yearning to be modern but also Chinese. There's a wonderful scene in her house where Tieng-Bin dances with her taking the lead because "that's how American men dominate."

John Christopher makes the most of his peripheral role as the missionary. And Julyana Soelistyo is endearing and effective as the young "Golden Child" and as the ghost of the modern American narrator's grandmother in the present-day scenes.

As the aged "Golden Child" is the literary stand-in for the playwright's own (and still living) grandmother, so Andrew, the narrator (also played by Stan Eng), is his own stand-in. The black business suit each wears in his initial scenes draw a visual line connecting the questions that nag them vis-à-vis their roots and their desire to be part ofthe new world.

The America-now sets, by the way, are as striking as the Chinese pagoda-like houses of the middle and major section.The modern scenes per se, work well enough as the sandwich covers for the 1918-19 drama, but their use as a device is somewhat too obvious. Perhaps, one day, Mr. Hwang will find a way to tell the untold story of the most interesting character in this play--that of the Golden Child..

Public Theater Production Notes
The play was directed by by James Lapine<
Cast: Tsai Chin (Eng Siu-Yond), Stan Egi (Andrew Kwong/Eng Tieng-Bin), John Christopher Jones (Rev Baines), Jodi Long (Eng Luan), Liana Pai (Eng Eling), Julyana Soelistyo (Eng Ahn)
Sets: Tony Straiges
Costumes: Martin Pakledinaz
Lighting, David J. Lander
Sound: Dan Moses Schreier
Projections: Wendall K. Harrington
Joseph Papp Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival /Newman Theatre
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer

Golden Child On Broadway -- 1998
Golden Child won a performance and playwriting OBIEs for Tsai Chin and, David Henry Hwang and a Clarence Derwent Award for Juliana Soelisty after its run at the Public Theater, despite decidedly mixed reviews. Most of the negative comments related to the awkwardness of the opening and closing scenes set in contemporary New York. The move to Broadway involved recasting and rewriting during a series of out-of-town tryouts (including a very well-received run in Singapore).

Now the play has returned to New York for a Broadway run. While a play can be improved, there can also be so much diddling around either make things worse or prove the game of rewriting to be hardly worth the candle. Fortunately the main strengths of the original are intact so our original review stands.

The play still focuses on the flashback to China, circa 1918 and the conflict between tradition and change as depicted through one man's family. The actors who made the strongest contribution to the play's pleasures, have reprised their roles in this production — Tsai Chin as the first and most dramatically important of the three wives and Julyana Soelistyo in her dual role as the play's title character and as the narrator Andrew's grandmother.

Director James Lapine continues at the helm and the physical production is beautiful as ever with the same set, lighting and costume designers in place. Alas, all the rewriting — making the narrator older, having grandmother appear in a dream instead of as a vision in a taxicab —- has done little to dispel the quibbles that sent Mr. Hwang back to his computer keyboard to begin with. The general consensus seems even more mixed than for the original Off-Broadway production.

Like so many writers of a first-time-around-the-block super hit, Hwang's biggest problem in winning critical support is not whether the Broadway version is better than the Off-Broadway one, but whether whatever he does can measure up to the slam-bang dramatic impact of his M. Butterfly. By having grandma pop up in a dream instead of the original taxicab, he now has given himself another burden of having his dream compared to Teyve's sleep visit to his ancestors in Fiddler on the Roof.

In the final analysis, this new Golden Child may well find enough of an audience to enjoy a substantial Broadway run, not so much in spite of the so-so critical reception but because this seems to be a season for a heartening receptivity to dramas.

Broadway Production Notes
Golden Cild again directed by James Lapine and with the same design team (minus the project design)
With: (bold-faced names represent reprise-performances from the production at the Public Theater): Randall Duk Kim (Eng Tieng-Bin), Tsai Chin (Eng Siu-Yong), Ming-Na Wen (Eng Eling), John Horton (Reverend Anthony Baines), Julyana Soelistyo (Ma and Eng Ahn), Kim Miyori (Eng Luan); also: Lisa Li, James Saito, Julienne Hanzelka Kim. Longacre,220 W. 48th St. (212/239-6200) From 3/14/98; closed 5/31/98 Tony nomination as Best Play of 1998,

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