I must admit to having looked forward to seeing a new work by David Henry Hwang — “M. Butterfly” and “Yellow Face” stand out in my mind – I have loved every one I have seen. But I also must own up to my concern at the mentions of last minute workshopping on “Soft Power” that appeared in several pre-opening publicity pieces. Sorry to say, that concern was well placed.
“Soft Power” is a play that becomes a musical. I did not make that up. It is the official pronouncement. The set up is that it is pre-election 2016. DHH (David Henry Hwang, played by Francis Jue) is approached by a producer, Xue Xing (Conrad Ricamora), from Dragon Media in China. He is visiting the U.S. because Dragon Media would like DHH to create a television series along the lines of “Sex and the City,” set in Shanghai, but when DHH starts to lay out his ideas he runs into Chinese censorship and control. It is an untenable project. Apparently, in real life, Hwang has been approached several times by Chinese producers and turned them down for the same reasons.
While Xue Xing is in the U.S. he and DHH go to a benefit performance of “The King and I” for Hilary Clinton (Alyse Alan Louis). Xue Xing meets the cartoonish version of Hilary, falls in love with her, and takes a selfy. What else? It is 2016. Xue Xing believes the love is mutual.
Several weeks after their meeting DHH is walking home in Brooklyn when someone jumps from the shadows and stabs him, severing an artery. The stabbing did happen to the real David Henry Hwang and much of the dialogue about the incident is almost verbatim from an article he wrote in the New York Times. On stage, DHH looses consciousness on the hospital gurney, and the play turns into a musical. Time has fast forwarded a hundred years, MacDonald’s has become the fancy restaurant of the day, people are dressed to the nines, waiters are on roller skates, and Hilary is dancing on top of a giant hamburger, twerking her heart out, trying to get people to love her. Does it work? Well, the time warp has no logical underpinnings, and it definitely lacks the punch of Bob Fosse’s hospital fugue in “All That Jazz.”
The gist of the story is that when the impossible happened, Hilary lost, China became the world leader using Soft Power, rather than arms, and isolated America has become a gaggle of rifle toting southerners making America Great Again. It is not a hard sell to the mostly liberal Los Angeles audience. However, tune into late night comics like Stephen Colbert or Trever Noah and the messages carry a much greater punch. “Soft Power” is just ham handed. There are references to the stupidity of the archaic Electoral College, to the feelings of an immigrant’s child of being an American yet an outsider, etc. but it is all superficial. It succeeds because the audience is primed for those sentiments.
Jeanine Tesori’s score and Sam Pinkleton’s choreography are mundane; the ensemble, however throws its collective heart and soul into the performance and earned the enthusiasm of the opening night audience. One exception is Hillary’s solo at the beginning of Act II. She is sitting at the edge of the stage, drowning her sorrows first in pizza, then in ice cream, then in ice cream on pizza. The writing is crisp and Alyse Alan Louis’ delivery soars. However, the halting spoken dialogue in the first act feels more like dialogue from an early rehearsal.
What can I say? Is there any amount of “workshopping” that can save “Soft Power?” I doubt it. A play about the real life incidents that run through the story line might be very interesting, but slapping generic music on to it? Why?