‘M. Butterfly’: Despite a somewhat ‘clunky and unsteady’ production, groundbreaking play ‘still resonates’

In 1988, the original production of David Henry Hwang’s groundbreaking play “M. Butterfly” earned the admiration of critics and audience, won three Tony Awards out of seven nominations, and landed on the shortlist for the 1989 Pulitzer Prize. Nearly 30 years later, the play returns to Broadway with visionary Julie Taymor at the helm of a production that opened at the Cort Theatre on October 26.

Based on an actual espionage trial and inspired by Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly,” “M. Butterfly” centers on French officer Rene Gallimard (Clive Owen), who falls in love and starts a decades-long affair with Song Liling (Jin Ha), a male Chinese opera singer and spy who Gallimard mistakes as a woman. Owen and Ha take the reigns of roles originated by John Lithgow and B. D. Wong, respectively, which earned the former a Tony nom and the latter a win for Best Featured Actor.

Did this prestigious new flight of “M. Butterfly” resonate with critics as much as the original?

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Critics seem evenly split on the effectiveness of this new production. Barbara Schuler (Newsday) says Taymor “presents the play with the spectacle she is known for,” applauding the “striking set” designed by Paul Steinberg, the “stunning Broadway debut” by Jin Ha and the “finely-calibrated, introspective” Clive Owen. Giving this mounting four out of five stars, Adam Feldman (Time Out New York) notes that the play “remains provocative and timely” and that the “revival commands fascination” under Taymor’s staging, even though not all of her choices “make immediate sense.”

Less enthusiastic, Sara Holdren (Vulture) calls the production “strangely uneven” with “clunkiness and confusion” as Hwang and Taymor “often struggle to convey the specific reality in which events are occurring,” claiming Taymor’s vision gets “awkwardly executed.” Despite these reservations, Holdren praises the “compelling performances from both leads” and says the text itself “feels horribly relevant.” Ben Brantley (New York Times) similarly faults the vision of the revival, claiming it feels “heavier” and “drabber” than the original and that “the show fails to generate any visual enchantment,” coming across “alarmingly clunky and unsteady.”

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Based on this mixed critical response, it’s hard to predict how well “M. Butterfly” might perform come Tony nominations next Spring. With a large number of revivals confirmed for the 2017-2018 season, “M. Butterfly” could easily miss out on a Best Revival nomination given the uneven critical response it received. Owen and Ha, who both earned largely favorable reviews, should be considered potential nominees at this early point in the season, but their tenuous grip on nominations may weaken as more and more productions bow. Of the two, Ha, making his Broadway debut, seems more likely to land a bid for his turn in the challenging, Tony-winning role.

Taymor, whose much-acclaimed production of the Broadway mounting of “The Lion King” earned her two Tony Awards in 1998 (Best Direction of a Musical, Best Costume Design), has tried to redeem herself on Broadway with “M. Butterfly” after helming the derided “Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark,” but critics seem ambivalent toward her directorial vision. Of her creative team, Donald Holder, lighting design, has the most successful track record with the Tony Awards, winning twice (“The Lion King” in 1998 and the revival of “South Pacific” in 2008) out of 12 nominations, while Constance Hoffman, costume design, has one previous Tony bid for “The Green Bird,” also a collaboration with Taymor. Scenic designer Paul Steinberg, whose sliding panels became the topic of much debate in critics’ reviews, has earned his first Broadway credit with this production. If any of the three earn a bid, Holder appears most likely, and a bid for “M. Butterfly” would return him to the category he contended in last year for Best Play victor “Oslo.”


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