In the current Diversionary Theatre/Asian American Repertory Theatre staging of M Butterfly, Diep Huynh nearly makes the leap from performance to embodiment. He's outstanding in the role of Song Liling, a Chinese opera star tasked with wresting military secrets from an unsuspecting French diplomat. The part demands a veteran debater's acumen and the finesse of a gender-crossing master of deception, and Diep wondrously weaves his way between each.
But Song's adversary ain't 'zackly the sturdiest card in the deck. He's René Gallimard, a fat-cat relic who gets along fine with the rest of the world as long as no one encroaches on his expansive comfort zone.
How else do you explain Gallimard's nearly 20-year extramarital fling with Song-one that in 1986 culminated in the real-life revelation that Song is a man?
You don't. You let David Henry Hwang's Tony-winning script suspend your suspicion that Gallimard knew he was getting laid by one of his own gender all those years.
To a large extent, Hwang succeeds on the breadth of the Gallimard character alone. He portrays Gallimard (Jesse MacKinnon) as a slovenly racist captivated by Asian females' roles in society vis-à-vis western feminism ("The Oriental woman," he crows-"when she's good, she's very, very good. But when she's bad, she's Christian!"). Caught up in Beijing exotica during China's cultural revolution of the 1960s, Gallimard takes up with Song partly as a reaction to the indifference of his wife Helga (a very strong Melissa Fernandes). Blind to his vows, he may have lost sight of the physical differences that birthed them.
That theory could have been made more clear if director Doren Elias let it unfold. Amid his Machiavellian comportment, Gallimard (later jailed after an espionage trial) sees and hears what he wants-so let's assist him into his madness through a more forthcoming disclosure on Song's part. Subtle costume and make-up alterations suggesting Song's maleness would have helped define Gallimard's obliviousness in the first act. And it would have added a fuller dimension to the subtext from there on.
The rest of the cast does fine in one-dimensional parts (some of which, in addition to the role of Song, require full frontal nudity). Scene designer Amanda Stephens' tidy suggestions of Chinese and French climes cap a most compelling entry. A little more foresight from Elias and less anticipation from the decent MacKinnon, and this show might have been one for the ages.
This review is based on the performance of April 3. M Butterfly runs through May 8 at Diversionary Theatre. $22-$24. 619-220-0097.