Physically and cerebrally Clive Owen has the chameleonic qualities that define a certain kind of star charisma: He’s handsome but not pretty; suave in a way that practically advertises insecurity; glib yet always on alert for the surgical riposte. All of which make the Knick star perfect for the role of Rene Gallimard, the French diplomat who falls in love with a Chinese opera star, in David Henry Hwang’s electrifying drama M. Butterfly.

Clive Owen and Jin Ha in ‘M Butterfly’
Matthew Murphy

This is the 1988 Tony Award-winning Best Play that marked the Broadway debut of an audacious young writer, now somewhat expanded and reimagined by director Julie Taymor in her first Broadway show since the fiasco that was Spider-Man:Turn Off the Dark (she is, of course, better known for her stage adaptation of The Lion King, just beginning its third decade). Both visually and intellectually, this revival is a wholesale departure from John Dexter’s original production, a decision that turns out to have been wise choosing. This M. Butterfly is every bit as memorable as the original.

Hwang took as his starting point a 1986 New York Times story under the headline “France Jails 2 in Odd Case of Espionage,” about Bernard Boursicot, a former French diplomat, and his lover, Shi Peipu, a star of the Beijing Opera, each sentenced by a French court to six years in jail for spying for China. The Chinese-American playwright was intrigued by the most shocking element of the story, which wasn’t that Boursicot’s lover was a spy, but that, apparently unbeknownst to the diplomat, Shi was a he.

This professed ignorance over the course of an intimate 20-year relationship may have lacked credibility for most observers (or indications of a closet case to the nth degree). But not for Hwang, who has mined the complexities, stereotypes and misunderstandings of East/West relations for a rich body of work (Yellowface, Chinglish) that can draw blood. Hwang understood how a delusional Western man might allow himself to be seduced by an actor trained in the depiction of female subservience. Why do men play women in Chinese opera, asks Shi (renamed in the play Song Liling)? Because “only a man knows how a woman is supposed to act,” he says, letting the words bite. For Hwang, the reverance shown by Western audiences for Puccini’s Madame Butterfly offers the ultimate example of this.

Opening in Beijing in 1964, M. Butterfly finds Gallimard, a low-level diplomat in the French embassy, enchanted by a performance Song (Jin Ha) gives at a party of the final scene in Puccini’s opera. Gallimard describes himself as “the patron saint of the socially inept,” but gushes over the portrayal of an Asian woman’s suicide:

They say in opera the voice is everything. Yet here – here
was a Butterfly with little or no voice – but she had the grace, the delicacy. I believed this girl. I believed her suffering. I wanted to take her in my arms — so delicate, even I could protect her, take her home, pamper her, ease her pain.

When Song seeks him out at the party after, they spar over the opera. Song taunts him: “It’s one of your favorite fantasies, isn’t it? The sub-
missive Oriental woman and the cruel white man.” Song doesn’t correct him when he calls her “mademoiselle.”

‘M. Butterfly’

Twenty years later, in court, Song will explain to the judge, in cringe-making detail, how he was able to deceive Gallimard as he rose through the ranks of the diplomatic corps after the U.S. took over France’s role in Southeast Asia, to disastrous effect. Hwang covers the period with a satirist’s vigor – we know the ignominious end it will come to – while never losing focus on the central pair, who after all, represent every racist miscue that would make the war such a ruinous catastrophe. The intertwining of the intimate with the political gives M. Butterfly its extra-sexual charge.

You probably wouldn’t recognize this revival as a Julie Taymor production. Unlike Dexter’s original (which starred John Lithgow and B.D. Wong), it’s deliberately unstylish and unvarnished. Paul Steinberg’s scene changes are made via old-fashioned moving panels that glide (sometimes clumsily) across the stage, aided by Donald Holder’s exquisitely detailed lighting shifts. Constance Hoffman’s costumes are similarly unshowy. This conventional style for such an unconventional script has the salubrious effect of throwing the action into high relief, and allows both Owen and Jin Ha to shine; they’re mesmerizing.

Elliot Goldenthal’s underscoring lends additional punctuation to this tale, which has been enhanced by the playwright after his recent face to face meeting with Boursicoult, who is now free and living in Paris. The better changes have more to do with Hwang’s maturity as a writer – he’s jettisoned some gratuitous comedy.

The less effective changes seem like padding, though the play passes almost in fever time. That’s appropriate for such a heated, intensely provocative show. It never lets up, and perhaps the best thing to be said about it is that you can’t wait for drinks after the theater to hash it all out.