BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
OFF BROADWAY REVIEW
Signature Theatre begins its season-long consideration of the plays by David Henry Hwang with quite a handsome revival of “Golden Child.”
Set mostly in China in 1918-1919, the story regards a well-to-do merchant who returns to his traditional home from an extended business trip with newfangled ideas acquired from his Western associates. The phonograph with Italian opera records is merely an amusing novelty but the eventual arrival of a Christian missionary represents a dangerous threat to the merchant’s three wives.
If their husband converts to Christianity, he then can have only one wife – and who will that be?
The leisurely two-act drama initially studies the formal customs and hierarchy of the Chinese household, where the first wife – and the mother of Ahn, the merchant’s beloved first-born “golden child” daughter – rules the roost over the other, younger spouses.
Then as their husband becomes more receptive to the missionary’s message, the squabbling wives begin to intrigue against one another. One of them conspires with the churchman with fatal results.
A reflective overlay of contrasting spirituality and philosophy lends distinction to Hwang’s enjoyable domestic drama, which provides a classy “Upstairs/Upstairs” period look at a wealthy Chinese establishment. Foot-binding and opium addiction are among the story’s darker instances of a well-ordered way of life that suddenly changes.
Always a lovely artist, Julyana Soelistyo originated the title role of “Golden Child” in 1996 and here she coolly portrays the imperious first wife with elegant gestures and a steely sense of humor. Jennifer Lim is nicely devious as the most dissatisfied spouse while Lesley Hu sweetly dithers as the youngest. Annie Q. is believable whether as the pert Ahn or the wizened grandma who relates this tragedy 50 years later. A tall actor with strong features, Greg Watanabe gravely expresses the merchant’s shifting opinions in his chats with Matthew Maher’s deferential English reverend, but his character tends to pale against the women in his life.
Director Leigh Silverman stages a well-paced production with a dark setting of elegant wooden screens by Neil Patel, comely costumes by Anita Yavich and dramatic lighting from Matt Frey. Sound designer Darron L. West lends an aural sense of the far East that further punctuates the drama. Treated so gracefully by Silverman and her associates, “Golden Child” offers an entertaining yet thoughtful account of some people inhabiting a soon-to-be lost world.
“Golden Child” continues through Dec. 16 at the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St., New York. Call (212) 244-7529 or visit www.signaturetheatre.org.