‘M. Butterfly’ Broadway Review: Clive Owen Falls for Peking’s Victor/Victoria

The actor breaks through the revamped play’s straight-face problems to deliver a riveting, tortured portrayal

m butterfly clive owen
Photo: Matthew Murphy

Bernard Boursicot is the French diplomat who, in the early 1980s, preferred that the world view him as a fool rather than a homosexual. That’s my personal take on the true-crime espionage story that led David Henry Hwang to write his 1988 play, “M. Butterfly.”

Subsequently, journalist Joyce Wadler wrote a nonfiction book about the case, titled “Liaison,” as well as a New York magazine article, “The True Story of M. Butterfly,” published in 1993. Wadler went into very graphic detail about how the male Peking Opera singer Shi Pei Pu deceived Boursicot into believing that he was really female for the 18 years of their affair.

Some of those details, among other things, have informed the first Broadway revival of Hwang’s revamped “M. Butterfly,” which opened Thursday at the Cort Theatre.

When I saw the original Broadway production of “M. Butterfly,” starring John Lithgow and BD Wong, I thought that Hwang had pulled a real Puccini. The play, then and now, accuses the Italian opera composer of distorting an Asian character, Cio-Cio San in “Madama Butterfly,” to make her sympathetic to Western audiences. Likewise, in my opinion, Hwang had distorted a gay character to make him acceptable to Broadway audiences.

In his rewritten play, Hwang has so much going on that it’s difficult to say for sure what’s going on, and sometimes that includes the plot. For example, since the Peking Opera only employed male actors, why does everyone in the French embassy believe that Rene Gallimard (the Boursicot character) is having an affair with a Chinese woman, Song Liling (the Pei Pu character)?

What does come across in the new “M. Butterfly” is that Gallimard never has much sexual interest in women. Clive Owen’s riveting, tortured portrayal makes that clear, and it’s lust at first sight when he first meets Liling (Jin Ha), believing the performer is a man dressed as a woman. Only later does Liling fabricate a story, falsely explaining that he is really the Victor/Victoria of Peking for reasons too complicated to put in this review.

Left out of the original and rewritten “M. Butterfly” is any reference to the many same-sex affairs that the real Boursicot had before meeting Pei Pu. This is what’s called “writing straight-face,” which is a big problem.

Julie Taymor is better known for directing sets than actors, but her success here isn’t limited to Owen’s performance. No, you will not believe Jin Ha is female when he first appears in full Madama Butterfly drag. In the original, BD Wong also fooled only the most naïve, despite all the publicity obfuscation to change his first name from Brad to BD. The magic of Ha’s performance is that his Liling becomes more genuinely feminine as the drama progresses. Regardless of the genitalia, there’s a woman somewhere in that body.

Taymor’s staging of scenes from the old Peking Opera, as well as the absurdly dreary militaristic ballets that followed, is visually stunning, as expected. These shows within the show imply that the Chinese have done to their culture what Hwang’s text blatantly accuses the West of doing: rape.

All of the playwright’s musings on the West’s abuse of the East are delivered from the mouth of Liling, a character who makes Sarah Huckabee Sanders look like an oracle to be trusted. It’s just one example of Hwang having it every which way. Equally confused messaging comes from his giving a play set in China a title from an opera set in Japan, and then accusing Westerners of lumping all Asians together.

Once he gets past seeing the Gallimard/Liling affair in broad geopolitical terms, Hwang ends his play with Gallimard alone in his cell, convicted of espionage and unable to come to terms with the many facets of his own sexual desire. Politics and artistic correctness are suddenly out of the picture. And only then does “M. Butterfly” take flight inward on the power of Hwang’s final words, eloquently delivered by Owen.