In the summer of 1867, a group of Chinese-American railroad workers (“coolies”) go on strike for a ten dollar raise and an eight hour workday: “Good for white man, all same good for Chinaman.” While they wait for the negotiations to end, they gamble and tell outrageous stories, placated by opium and big dreams. But all this is at the periphery of David Henry Hwang’s The Dance and the Railroad, which opens on one man, the appropriately named Lone (Yueken Wu), dancing by himself in silhouette. He is a former actor from a Chinese opera company who was forced into American labor but who continues to practice for a part he will never play, Gwan Gung. For Lone, art is escape, it is discipline, and it is liberation from his awful circumstances.
It is a beautiful, poetic image, but unfortunately the play that follows does not live up to its potency. Enter Ma (Ruy Iskander), an arrogant kid of eighteen who also wants to play Gwan Gung but does not want to take the time (eight years) to earn this sacred right. Nevertheless, Lone takes him in, teaching him to dance while opening up to him in the final day of the strike. But at seventy minutes, The Dance and the Railroad is more a sketch than a play. We are offered too little of these characters; there is both an emotional and a thematic gap here—and not the sort like, say, in Pinter, that allows us to fill in what the playwright has deliberately left out. The suffering of the workers is too lightly brushed against and we never get a true sense of their pain.
It does not help that Mr. Iskander is ill cast as Ma. Like his character, he is too eager to please, playing each line for its biggest possible laugh without paying attention to their cumulative effect: his performance is so sycophantic that by the time he reaches a key soliloquy—a reflection of his life back home—we cannot take him seriously. All his jaw-hanging grins and comically exaggerated gestures undermine Ma’s depth. Mr. Wu, however, is a terrific actor. He has the stony face and paradoxically opaque and fiery eyes of a subaltern who knows that deception and introversion are the safest response to those in power. Furthermore, his dances are masterfully athletic and surprisingly affecting in the context of this slight work; it is a dizzying joy to see him in moments that allow him to excel.
Mr. Hwang is a solid and important voice in American theater—no other playwright has so effectively chronicled the meeting of East and West; I was even fond of Chinglish, a recent Broadway show that did not earn great reviews. The Dance and the Railroad, his second play, is not one of his best. Perhaps we can look forward to Kung Fu, his upcoming drama about Bruce Lee. Perhaps it will reprise the intensity and the intelligence of his greatest work, M. Butterfly.