Total Rating: 
October 6, 2017
October 26, 2017
February 25, 2018
New York
New York
Nelle Nugent, Steve Traxler, Kenneth Teaton, Benjamin Feldman, Doug Morris, Gilad-Rogowsky, Jim Kierstead; Hunter Arnold, Spencer Ross, and Jam Theatricals, in association with Alex L.L. Ritchie, Kades-Reese, Storyboard Entertainment, Jeffrey Sosnick
Theater Type: 
Cort Theater
Theater Address: 
138 West 48 Street
Running Time: 
2 hrs, 15 min
David Henry Hwang
Julie Taymor
Ma Cong

M. Butterfly is a chemistry lesson. There isn’t any between French diplomat Rene Gallimard (Clive Owen) and Chinese Opera Star Song Liling (Jin Ha). And without it, the show just doesn’t work. Each performer involved is fine on his own; but look too closely, and it becomes obvious that Owen is too much the roughneck fellow off the docks to be sympathetic, and Ha is just plain too masculine. Though slight of stature, Ha has a strong face, projects little feminine charm, and walks like a guy. The fact that we first see him in male attire doesn’t help. All this could be overcome if there were sparks between the two protagonists. Unfortunately, from the beginning, the attraction just isn’t there.

The story of the bureaucrat and his Asian lover was first presented on Broadway in July 1988, and ran for 777 performances. It captivated audiences, and actors John Lithgow and B.D. Wong were the talk of the town. Here, author David Henry Hwang has done revisions that make the play more pedestrian; there is now a trial scene that details the sexual union in excruciating detail.

M. Butterfly was always about sexual politics intertwined with international politics. The West has always misjudged the East. We consider ourselves bigger, stronger, and dominant. In our eyes, they are shy, submissive, grateful to be considered at all. Yes, that was a large part of our failure in Vietnam. But to make the play far more political than it was originally points the emphasis in the wrong direction. When Song Liling is blatantly a tool of the Chinese Communist Party, the message gets even more confusing than need be, and Gallimard seems like an even bigger fool.

That the story is told as a memory from Gallimard’s gray prison cell opens the door for fantasy and heightened illusion. We have come to expect no less than brilliant imaginings brought stunningly to life from director Julie Taymor. The magic is simply missing, and Gallimard’s flights of fancy register as pedestrian and unworthy of our allowing ourselves to be swept away by his delusions. Without the delicacy, color, and enchantment it should have, this Butterfly is too much of a moth.

Clive Owen, Jin Ha, Clea Alsip, Murray Bartlett, Michael Countryman, Celeste Den, Jess Fry, Enid Graham, Thomas Michael Hammond, Cole Horibe, Jason Ignacio, Kristen Faith Oei, Erica Sweany, John Leonard Thompson, Erica Wong
Set: Paul Steinberg. Costumes: Constance Hoffman. Sound: Will Pickens. Lighting: Donald Holder
Michall Jeffers
Date Reviewed: 
November 2017