The Broadway debut of "M. Butterfly" 16 years ago provided a dazzling launch for a radiant young actor, and now Arena Stage's smashing revival is poised to do the same. The actor who received the initial boost was B.D. Wong; this time it is a newly minted Juilliard graduate, J. Hiroyuki Liao, whose seismic work all but rattles the roof of the Fichandler Stage.
Liao's enticing Song Liling, the enigmatic tempter/temptress who ensnares a gullible French diplomat in love and espionage, is reason enough to embrace this production, staged with theatrical dash by Tazewell Thompson. But he is far from the only reason. As the credulous embassy official, narrating the astonishing tale (based on a true story) of his longtime affair with a Chinese man he believed to be a woman, Stephen Bogardus conjures with a compelling grace the contradictions in his character's nature: the sexual inadequacies, the desire to dominate, the political cluelessness, the romantic propensity to both rapture and self-delusion.
The director, too, wraps David Henry Hwang's Tony-winning tragicomedy in a stylish package; the play is staged without scenery, on a platform in Arena's Fichandler Theater that suggests itself as an homage to the precepts of Noh drama, the Japanese tradition of simple sets and intense emotion. Carrie Robbins's exquisite costumes, from ceremonial kimonos to French couture, and Robert Wierzel's bold-stroke lighting effects are invaluable assets, dressing the Fichandler in arrays of entrancing textures and patterns.
The supporting cast -- especially Terrence Currier as a debonair ambassadorial survivor, and Brigid Cleary, playing a dutiful, xenophobic embassy wife -- is just as effective. In short, this is Arena energized and fully in its element, making the most of a play whose topicality has, if anything, intensified over the years. Though it chronicles a folly of the most intimate kind, "M. Butterfly" is just as cleverly an examination of the arrogance of a set of false assumptions made on a grander scale: that of the West's misreading of other cultures, and the sorry consequences that often ensue.
The multiple layers of Hwang's play range over an ambitious agenda -- at times perhaps a bit too ambitious -- that includes sexual identity, French foreign policy, the perverse puritanism of China's Cultural Revolution, the principles of Chinese opera, and even the Western opera by Puccini that inspires the drama's title. These thematic strains take some time to coalesce. Set both in the 1960s and in the aftermath of their 20-year liaison, the work recounts Song's seduction of Rene Gallimard (Bogardus), a mid-level official in the French Embassy in Beijing. Song, an actor who plays female parts in Chinese operas, has been recruited by the Communist Chinese government to learn from Gallimard the secrets of America's nascent military adventure in Vietnam.
Gallimard's stock rises at the embassy -- a local mistress apparently is a good career move in the French foreign service -- and his views on Southeast Asia suddenly get the ear of his superiors. When he ventures the misinformed opinion that the United States (whose interests are represented in Beijing by the French) will be well received by the average Vietnamese, the French ambassador (Currier) is thrilled. "The Americans," the envoy says, "always like to hear how welcome they'll be."
In a play all about people seeing and hearing only what they choose to, the line gets one of the evening's biggest laughs. Today, of course, it's not Vietnam of which an audience is reminded; it sounds eerily as if it were written in response to the suggestion that grateful Shiites would greet U.S. soldiers with flowers. The joke is on the flawed, high-minded innocence of nations that presume to know what other nations want, and this idea of bullying, cultural tone-deafness is at the heart of "M. Butterfly."
The play, though, would be a sodden lecture if all it presented was a light evening's entertainment for members of the Council on Foreign Relations. The yin-yang completeness of "M. Butterfly" allows no one to escape its condemning eye on hypocrisy, not even Song, a gay man who is used and uses in equal measure, and who ultimately fails to understand that the artifice that enabled him to survive the Cultural Revolution has destroyed the one relationship he needs it to sustain.
Song's "artistry" is the inspiration for the sexual mystery that animates "M. Butterfly": How could the married Gallimard not have known his Chinese mistress was a mister? To his credit, Hwang makes no effort to explain how the subterfuge had been carried off for so long, though in the spellbinding final movement, Song suggests to a French court that male vanity is the world's most useful conduit for deception.
Bogardus, whose work in the original off-Broadway productions of William Finn's "March of the Falsettos" and "Falsettoland" established him as an actor with an athletic vitality and a common touch, is a fully realized Gallimard; you see how a man of ordinary dimension might be desperate to be taken captive by a love beyond reason. The performance conveys the virility and sensitivity of the man, a combination that proves an ideal match for the intensity of Liao's irresistible Song.
Thompson and Liao always give you hints that Song is "on," that the life shared with Gallimard is a masterly improvisation. The stylized feminine gestures employed by the actors in the Chinese opera sequences are on display in the scenes with Gallimard, too; rarely are Liao's hands not fluttering or folding or filigreeing the air. The portrayal is delicate, but it's not realistically girlish, and it's not a drag performance, in the sense that nothing about it campily exaggerated. It leaves open the possibility of just what Song implies, that Gallimard has simply willed him to be the woman of his dreams.
Both Liao and Bogardus make breathtaking transformations at the end of the play, of sorts so vibrant that you forgive Hwang some of his rhetorical excesses, particularly in an overlong inquisition scene late in the proceedings between Song and his Communist minders. The parting image, in fact, is such a magical coup de grace that anything that has come before will feel worth the wait.
M. Butterfly, by David Henry Hwang. Directed by Tazewell Thompson. Set, Donald Eastman; lighting, Robert Wierzel; sound and original music, Fabian Obispo; wigs, Jon Aitchison. With Ako, Kelly Brady, Marty Lodge, Kenneth Lee, Jeffrey Luke. Approximately 2 hours 45 minutes. Through Oct. 17 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. Call 202-488-3300 or visit www.arenastage.org.