Love, honor, and . . . oh, boy

The perils of polygamy, according to David Hwang's new play Golden Child.

AS A CULTURAL institution, monogamy has plenty of disadvantages, but at least it avoids the sort of domestic complexities demanded by polygamy. That, at any rate, is the impression given by David Hwang's new play Golden Child, which concerns the dilemma of a modern-thinking Chinese businessman in 1918, who finds that compared with the three wives in his current domestic situation, the strictures of a Christian marriage sound positively idyllic.

Golden Child

Seattle Repertory Theater till October 30

For Eng Tieng-Bin (James Saito), a successful trader working in the Philippines, the Westerners he encounters seem to possess an intoxicating confidence and belief in individual accomplishment. Their financial enterprise, their steamships and gramophones, even their common boasting fills a yearning he has to be rid of the smothering traditions of Chinese society, with its social strictures and ancestor worship. It's not an opinion shared by his first wife, Siu-Yong (Kim Miyori), who clings so tenaciously to the old ways that when her husband asks her to unbind her own daughter's feet (ritual foot-binding had recently been outlawed), she vehemently refuses. But his other two wives, the young and desirable Eling (Grace Hsu) and the older but cunning Luan (Karen Tsen Lee), are willing to embrace modern ideas, so long as they can retain their husband.

It's a strong ensemble, neatly filled out by Jack Clay's funny yet calculating performance as an English missionary who, since the play takes place in China, speaks with a pidgin accent to mimic his awful Chinese. It's also a gorgeous show, with Loy Arcenas' expansive set surmounted by massive paper lanterns and featuring sliding screens.

Among Hwang's considerable dramatic talents, however, humor is not a front-runner, and Golden Child uneasily tries to be a comedy precisely because the drama seems underpowered. Even scenes that are implicitly funny—such as a dinner with the three wives and Eng that becomes a vicious contest of self-deprecation—lack sparkle and sharpness. The play was heavily workshopped before production, and like many scripts that have suffered a similar fate, much that could have remained rough has been polished to dullness, and much that could have been left unsaid is overexplained.

The playwright's own lack of confidence in his material is evident by two "bookending" scenes involving the great-grandson of Eng, Andrew, who is filled with anxiety about his approaching fatherhood. Ahn appears to him in a dream to tell him the story of his own family, which makes the play a candidate for an "I'm sorry I asked" award, particularly since the story seems to have no relevance to his situation at all. Hwang tries too hard to make his exotic scenario commonplace to this time and this society, and the result feels forced—neither accurate history nor effective contemporary commentary.

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