By Samuel L. Leiter
Damon Chua’s Incident at Hidden Temple, a world premiere at the Clurman, kicks off the 40th season of the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre, an accomplishment for which company founder and artistic producing director Tisa Chang deserves the warmest commendation. It’s too bad, however, that Pan Asian’s newest production couldn’t be a stronger one to honor her achievement. On the other hand, she has, through her politically involved father, a personal relationship to one of the play’s central figures, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek.
This is Chua’s second play for Pan Asian, and, like his 2015 Film Chinois, takes us to China in the 1940s, when competing ideologies created an atmosphere of danger and distrust. Film Chinois was set in 1947 Beijing, two years after World War II, while Incident at Hidden Temple occurs in China in 1943, during the war, with American forces supporting the Chinese.
There are actually two Chinas involved, however, one led by Chiang’s Nationalists, the other by Mao Zedong’s communist forces. The situation creates major strategic tensions for the Americans, led by Gen. Joseph Stilwell, not seen, whose positions are represented by his civilian aide, McAllister (Nick Jordan). The real-life feud that existed between Stilwell and Gen. Claire Chennault, head of the Flying Tigers fighter squadrons, is altered by replacing Chennault with the fictional Gen. Cliff Van Holt (Jonathan Miles), who, like Chennault, is friendly with the generalissimo (Dinh James Doan).
Chua, however, focuses only intermittently on the complex military-historical issues, the outcome of which established the foundation of U.S.-China relations into the 1970s. Instead, he diffuses his treatment by introducing various melodramatic mysteries. The Stilwell-Van Holt friction, concerning major decisions about building a base for attacks on Japan, becomes just another piece of the mosaic on which other elements are played out as the dramatist grapples with issues of truth.
Thus we get an investigation into the murder of an American soldier (Nick Jordan) ; the disappearance of a 16-year-old Chinese girl, Lucy Chao (Briana Sakamoto), while traveling by train with her older sister, Ava (Ying Ying Li), a journalism student; a Chinese-American pilot named Walter Hu (Tim Liu) who appears to be passing himself off as yet another pilot; the hint of a romance between the married Van Holt and Ava; a wise, old, blind man (Dinh James Doan), who prattles in mystical terms about a certain “Hidden Temple”; an unintended pregnancy; and, for good measure, a subplot involving sacred artifacts, Ernest Hemingway, and two people connected to him that Chua suggests were real but can’t be found anywhere on the Internet.
Chua fails to create a sufficiently believable world in which these multiple threads can be effectively woven together. And by having everyone speak in the same, mostly unaccented American English, even when they’re speaking Chinese (one character even speaks Chinese with a folksy American drawl), it remains unclear what language is being spoken when.
There are also any number of plot questions. Why, for instance, has Ava, who could have gone to America, remained in war-torn China to continue her journalism studies, when she could have studied abroad? Or why, if these studies are so important, hasn’t she decided what to do when she graduates? And why are Lucy and Ava given Western names?
An air of superficiality hovers not only over the writing but over the entire, stilted production, performed against Sheryl Liu’s set dominated by a homely wall built in false perspective and painted a dour, grayish-green. Hanhji Jang’s costumes are barely passable, and Pamela Kupper’s lighting only a bit better, although she creates a nice effect that makes the hidden temple visible.
Director Kaipo Schwab’s pacing for the two-hour play is uneven and his staging awkward, beginning with the thoroughly unconvincing stabbing that begins the play. A fight scene staged by Michael G. Chin has two men using traditional martial arts techniques, as if they were in a refereed match instead of a potentially life and death struggle. As for the acting, let’s just say better luck next time.
“Sometimes truth is just hidden in plain sight,” says the blind man, who, as per the convention, sees more clearly than anyone else. To which those who left at intermission might reply: “The truth shall set you free.”
Incident at Hidden Temple
Clurman Theatre/Theatre Row
410 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through February 12
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).