Olney's 'M. Butterfly' is too quick to give away the central secret

March 28, 1995|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

David Henry Hwang's "M. Butterfly" is a remarkable play in at least three respects: The truth-is-stranger-than-fiction mystery that forms the core of the plot; the ability of an abhorrently chauvinistic and misguided protagonist to win the audience's understanding and possibly sympathy; and the way it interweaves the yin-and-yang themes of male vs. female, Occident vs. Orient and fantasy vs. reality.

Two out of three of these are a clear miss in director Jim Petosa's production at Olney Theatre Center.

For starters, the program repeatedly commits the sin of giving away the mystery. Olney may have figured that since the play won the Tony Award and has been made into a movie, its secret is no longer a surprise. But surely not everyone remembers the strange news account of a 20-year affair between a French diplomat and the Chinese opera singer who deceived him and his country in a highly unusual fashion. (The uninitiated may continue reading here without fear.)

A second, equally serious, problem lies in Paul Morella's portrayal of the duped diplomat, Gallimard. Speaking from the Paris prison cell where he is serving time for treason, Gallimard explains that he is telling his story in hopes that we will understand and perhaps even envy him.

But Morella himself doesn't seem to have a clear understanding of Gallimard. He delivers his opening speech with his eyes closed, as if he can't face us. At several points during the flashback that makes up the bulk of the play, he rocks back and forth on his knees like a disturbed mental patient. At times he seems to be ridiculing himself. Near the end, when the truth about the opera singer is revealed, he pounds his head with his hands.

As the opera singer, Song Liling, J. V. Ledesma is more convincing, though somewhat hampered by physical -- and particularly vocal -- traits. These render Ledesma slightly less effective in the crucial early scenes in which Gallimard is first attracted to Song. But it is indicative of the strength of Ledesma's acting that Song ultimately wins our sympathy, not Gallimard.

Partly because of Ledesma's sensitivity, and partly because it is so brilliantly crafted, one important element of Hwang's script manages to overcome Olney's largely heavy-handed approach. The play offers a biting analysis of men's misperceptions of women and the West's misperceptions of the East. It does this in a manner reminiscent of an intricate, layered Chinese carving -- in this case intermingling the plot of "M. Butterfly" with Gallimard's running commentary on his favorite opera, Puccini's "Madame Butterfly."

Most of the supporting performances are fine, especially those of Carol A. Honda as Song's surly servant and Neal Moran as Gallimard's worldly boyhood friend. James Kronzer's set design, with its multitude of sliding screens, is attractive but cumbersome; the text would be better served by a more abstract, simple design.

But the greatest disappointment of Olney's production is that it dulls, and often obliterates, the gleam on one of the most lustrous scripts to reach Broadway in recent years. Unlike Song Liling, whose greatest skill as a performer is supposed to be subtlety, this production is anything but.

'M. BUTTERFLY'

Where: Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Route 108, Olney

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sundays, selected Thursday and Saturday matinees; through April 23

Tickets: $23-$28

Call: (301) 924-3400

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