LVLT dulls satirical edge of ‘Yellow Face’ by playing it too safe

Jacob Coakley

Two and a half stars

Yellow Face Through November 22; Thursday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m., $10-$15. Las Vegas Little Theatre, 702-362-7996.

A satiric look at racism and racial identity, David Henry Hwang’s Yellow Face charts the struggles of a character named David Henry Hwang (“DHH,” played by Kris Mayeshiro) with a white actor pretending to be Asian and a media and congressional witch hunt into the bank David’s father owns, motivated by “Yellow Scare” politics. It’s a pointedly funny take on serious topics, but Las Vegas Little Theatre’s production keeps a little too much intellectual distance.

Under Rommel Pacson’s direction, the play demonstrates a debilitating “Type B” personality, having a hard time rousing itself into any sense of urgency. While the actors have sharp characterizations, the actual interaction between them rarely rises above tepid. The climactic scene, when DHH confronts a reporter from The New York Times (Charlene Moskal), should be a taut, cat-and-mouse game of verbal jousting as the characters literally fight over a tape recorder, each hoping to gain the upper hand and frame how the conversation will be perceived and the other’s reputation destroyed. DHH might be seen as betraying his father and losing all his “face” in a very public way (something he has fought against the entire play), and the reporter might be called out as a racist xenophobe intent on inflaming cultural tensions. These are not low stakes—but the scene plays slow, and the confrontation reads like a freshman year dorm-room bull session, full of high ideas and a comfortable distance from actual ruin.

This dulling confusion pervades the play in other ways—jokes don’t land as sharply as they should because the timing is off; at other times, questionable blocking puts the focus on the wrong characters in scenes and undercuts the emotional content.

It’s not all bad. Each cast member is called upon to play multiple characters of various genders and ethnicities, and they deliver vividly. Chris Davies, in particular, does a sterling job as HYH, father of the main character and a Chinese immigrant who ends up as head of a large Chinese-American bank. And Vanecia Iris-Rose’s scene as a casting agent trying to determine the ethnicity of an actor (an endearing Shane Cullum) without actually asking is a delight of mistaken meanings and political correctness.

But it’s not enough. In the end, this production seems content to show off how it’s playing respectfully with the ideas of race and identity in the script and coming down on the right side of inclusion and acceptance—as opposed to truly engaging in the bloody battle about what it means when the political becomes truly, painfully, personal.

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