"Teahouse" makes a fine first impression. After a brief rhymed prologue, chanted by an actor tapping on a Chinese percussion instrument, the curtain rises, and what it reveals delights the eye: the beehive bustle of a Beijing teahouse, circa 1898. Pimps and patricians gathering for oolong and gossip. Peasants circling the tables with their meager wares. Waiters struggling with heaping trays of noodles.
It's the everyday symphony of city life, and the Beijing People's Art Theater, in its inaugural visit to this country, strikes a harmonious note in this early passage. If nothing else over the ensuing 2 hours and 45 minutes quite matches the opening tableau as an expression of the vitality of Beijing and Chinese theater, that's okay. Sometimes, an exposure to something novel is its own reward. And "Teahouse's" role in the Kennedy Center's Festival of China is clearly that of conversation starter, an introduction to the dramatic traditions of a nation whose classics of the stage are almost never produced in this part of the world.
For that reason alone, the debut here of "Teahouse" is a significant event. The 1958 play, by Lao She, a novelist and dramatist who had taught in the West and died in China under murky circumstances during the '60s Cultural Revolution, is a chronicle of political and economic upheaval on an intensely human scale. Over the course of its three acts, set in three periods between 1898 and 1947, Manager Wang's teahouse struggles to adapt to the whirlwind changes that alter the fortunes of everyone who comes to sip his tea.
The piece is a mainstay of the 53-year-old People's Art Theater, and you can see why. In addition to its vivid evocation of the old China, it seems to hew to the political mainstream, suggesting that the injustices of regimes of yore were bound to lead to socialism. The play's backdrop is the everyday corruption and cruelties of establishments that preceded the communists. Concluding in 1947, about two years before Mao's ascendancy, the play alludes often to the idea of "reform" but clearly provides a rationale for the communist reformers poised to seize the nation.
As a slice of turbulent Beijing life, "Teahouse," which ended its brief stay in the Eisenhower Theater on Saturday, can be slow going. Although the talent pool is deep and the cast impressive -- Liang Guanhua's Manager Wang being a particular achievement -- the gallery of characters is so vast and the vignettes so multitudinous that Lao can deal only superficially with any one of them. Some of the customers' stories are developed, most successfully that of Master Chang (Pu Cunxin), a man unfairly imprisoned in the time of the Qing Dynasty, but many others are trampled in Lao's historical stampede.
It must be added that for some who don't understand the language -- the play is performed in the Beijing dialect of Mandarin -- watching it was a literal pain in the neck. The English surtitles were projected on a screen that was suspended so high above the Eisenhower stage that you could not follow the dialogue without actors disappearing from your line of vision. The other problem was synchronization. At times, words materialized too soon or vanished too quickly. The technicians should have seen to it that this was less of a distraction.
The company's lucid staging, though, ensures that "Teahouse" is continually accessible. Lao's play is resolutely naturalistic -- a contrast to the wild stylization, for instance, of the Peking Opera -- and does not unfold in a way that seems exotic to an audience in the West. In fact, anyone familiar with O'Neill's "The Iceman Cometh" will recognize Lao's device, the watering hole as staging area for all of life's misery and euphoria.
The teahouse itself, in fact, is Lao's most inspired character. At the outset of the play, it is a teeming microcosm of the city, a makeshift court and marketplace, where scores are settled and goods traded. In one of the more poignant episodes, a peasant sells his daughter to a court eunuch, through the offices of a local procurer by the name of Pock-Mark Liu (the aptly sleazy He Bing). As events shift to 1918, and foreign powers exert ever more influence in the capital, Wang tries to fend off insolvency by taking in students as boarders and festooning the establishment with the Stars and Stripes and Union Jack.
Just outside the teahouse doors, we see soldiers and protesters and feel the impact of bombs exploding. By 1947, the teahouse and its proprietor are worn out by years of tumult and decay. The gangster son of Liu (played, again, by He) wants to turn it into a whorehouse. Lao's spiral of disintegration is complete. "Everything good," observes a Beijing storyteller, seated at a corner table in the dark and dying teahouse, "is rotting away at the roots."
The playwright ably mines the little ironies of decline: A chef now seeks work in jails, he says, because there are "more mouths to feed in prison." Despite some dry patches, "Teahouse" is an oasis for anyone with a thirst for voices they rarely get to hear.