"M. Butterfly" was an eye-opening gender-bender when it won the Tony Award for best play in 1988, much as "The Heidi Chronicles" had harnessed the zeitgeist around feminism when it won the best-play Tony in 1989. These landmark American dramas still have plenty of kick as they sweep across the mid-20th century, even if productions now in Baltimore and Columbia, Md., miss some essential frictions.
Apparently we haven't outgrown the dynamic that David Henry Hwang outlined in his career-making play; "M. Butterfly" will be generating more buzz this fall as Julie Taymor revives it on Broadway with Clive Owen. Hwang's notion is that East and West are still at odds in a relationship that looks especially grotesque and corrupt when cast in masculine-feminine terms.
This is the drama based on the true story of the French diplomat who had a nearly two-decade affair with a Chinese opera performer and spy — and who was surprised after all those years to learn that his lover was a man. Hwang elaborately sets this within the saga of "Madame Butterfly," the opera about the loyal Japanese woman who kills herself over the American cad Pinkerton.
At Everyman Theatre, Hwang's diplomat, Rene Gallimard, is a rueful romantic, and Bruce Randolph Nelson is like a Graham Greene expat in the role — knowing, jaded, still pining for the rapture he discovered in a foreign land. Despite the rampant fantasizing and deception, though, the production is "as real as hamburger," to borrow one of Hwang's most biting lines.
Maybe that's inevitable for a show with ties to Bernard Boursicot, the diplomat whose story inspired the play: Director Vincent Lancisi stumbled into a meeting with Boursicot in France just this summer (and he brought Nelson, at Boursicot's suggestion). But there isn't enough gender frisson or expansive cultural vengeance in Vichet Chum's turn as the seductive singer Song Liling, and Song's pivotal change before the final act is missing a couple of steps. "M. Butterfly" is still a play with massive accusatory power, but here the tables turn without much zest.
Rep Stage's terribly bland-looking "Heidi Chronicles" isn't any better at capturing the vibe of its decade, and staging it in the round on an empty, echo-y stage makes the performers work too hard at characters whose charm and unease often need to be casual and subtle. The staging also makes it impossible to scrutinize the paintings pointedly shown by fictional art historian Heidi Holland, which are projected onto the floor.
Even so, Wendy Wasserstein's play, revived on Broadway in 2015 with Elisabeth Moss, is still great company. The dialogue ripples with zingers as the story follows Heidi from the late 1960s through the ERA 1970s and into Ronald Reagan's '80s; the women's-group encounter is especially good as director Jenna Duncan's performers (Melissa Flaim, Hallie Cooper, Alina Collins Maldonado and Madeline Rose Burrows) swap stories and manifesto statements before swearing fidelity forever.
It was never that easy, of course, and Heidi's sense of betrayal and disappointment are rendered in fine shades by Beth Hylton. Her chief sparring partner is actor Rex Daugherty, who initially seems too young and hip to play Scoop Rosenbaum, but whose progressive, pragmatic and incisive banter quickly scores with Hylton's seduced Heidi.
Scoop is destined to be a major magazine mogul and bad news for Heidi as Wasserstein analyzes what men and women want, and who can get what — and on what terms — as the cultural climate shifts. Hylton nicely channels Wasserstein's flickers of sadness while keeping the mood warm and hopeful. Too bad this colorful, durable social comedy is displayed in such an empty frame.