‘M. Butterfly’ runs at the Cort Theatre through Feb. 25. 138 W. 48th St., mbutterflybroadway.com.
Oh lord, what have David Henry Hwang and Julie Taymor done to “M. Butterfly”?
Hwang’s 1988 Tony-winning play is a critical-minded drama dissecting race relations, gender roles and international affairs — and also a gripping thriller full of sex, spying and disguises.
Its seriously misguided and marred Broadway revival contains direction by Taymor, lead performances from English actor Clive Owen (“Closer”) and Jin Ha (Chicago cast of “Hamilton”) and extensive, unnecessary and mostly detrimental rewrites.
Inspired by an unbelievable tabloid story and Puccini’s 1904 East-meets-West tragic opera “Madama Butterfly,” Rene Gallimard (Owen), a lonely, socially awkward French diplomat working in 1960s Beijing, enters into an unexpected romantic relationship with Song Liling (Ha), a Chinese opera diva who is in fact a Communist Party spy — and a man.
Gallimard (who was eventually exposed and convicted of treason) narrates the story from his prison cell, explaining how he was disarmed by Liling’s flattery, wit and beauty and could not (at least consciously) figure out the truth. In a new bit of text, Liling graphically explains how sexual intercourse with Gallimard was feigned.
This marks the first production by Taymor (who is highly influenced by foreign theater and the avant-garde) to come to Broadway since the disaster that was “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” (even though her Broadway staging of “The Lion King” continues to run).
Visually, the production is a mess, with flimsy flat panels that are rearranged so slowly and clumsily to suggest new settings that they interfere with the play’s seamless, time and space shifting style of storytelling. Likewise, Hwang’s meandering and confusing rewrites bring the suspenseful pace to a halt.
Taymor seems most interested in the play’s extraneous sequences depicting the Chinese opera, full of theatricality, wild movement, percussive music and exotic costumes.
Owen is fine as Gallimard, full of charm and humor while speaking to the audience and then switching to a vulnerable, childlike guise as he relives his past.
Liling is an extremely challenging role (one for which B.D. Wong won a Tony in the original production) and Ha does not have the physical or vocal abilities to pull off the dazzling feminine mystique that wins over and blinds Gallimard.
What’s especially unfortunate is that “M. Butterfly” has renewed relevance today, as the U.S. attempts to understand and effectively interact with rising eastern powers on the global stage. The play was ripe for revival — and it has instead been ripped apart.
As it happens, there are a number of other ways of checking out the play. The original script has long been in publication and a faithful film version was made in 1993 with Jeremy Irons. I also recommend a 1996 audio recording with John Lithgow and B.D. Wong, the stars of the original Broadway production, which can be streamed online for free or downloaded at a low cost.