My reaction to the new Broadway revival of M. Butterfly, I’m afraid to say, is a giant shrug. When David Henry Hwang’s play made its Broadway debut in 1988, it was a startling, even daring, effort to make sense of the strange but true story of a French diplomat in China who had a years-long affair with a Chinese opera singer — who turns out to be, not only a communist spy, but a man. Today, in the age of Orange Is the New Black and debates over transgender rights, the shock has largely worn off, and the play comes across as a rather heavy-handed effort to turn a tabloid docudrama into a larger statement on gender confusion, East-West stereotypes, Chinese subjugation of women, the War in Vietnam — well, you name it, Hwang pretty much throws everything into the pot. Despite (or maybe because of) some rewriting he has done for this revival, the quirky personal story just isn’t able to carry the weight of its social-cultural-historical baggage.
Julie Taymor’s new production is handsome and well-staged, though (except for a couple of dance interludes, choreographed by Ma Cong) without much evidence of her inventive visual style. In my hazy memory of the original production, John Lithgow seemed a much more vulnerable, sexually insecure and believable protagonist than the macho, matinee-idol handsome Clive Owen here. But Jin Ha, in the role originated by B.D. Wong, is sympathetic and reasonably convincing as the gender-bending object of his affection. Still, as post-Vietnam-era reworkings of the Madame Butterfly story go — call me crass, but I prefer Miss Saigon.