The central, nagging problem with David Henry Hwang’s “M. Butterfly,” whether in its original staging or in this revival, is that no matter how good the acting, no matter that it is based on a real story, and no matter how attractive director Julie Taymor tries to make the staging, one is hard-pressed to imagine that a man could be sleeping with another man for many years and still think he’s a woman. We’re not talking trans-sexual here; we’re talking not seeing or feeling the physical equipment through all of the lovemaking.
What kind of a jerk can such a man be? Yet that was the case that resulted in a scandal with the real-life Frenchman Bernard Boursicot, who became infatuated in China with an opera singer he thought was a woman. Their relationship also turned into spying for the Communist Chinese government, for which he received a prison sentence.
Although I cannot precisely remember details of the original Broadway production, it seems that in Hwang’s reworking that has been acknowledged, the author has tried to make the sexuality of the yarn more believable. That interpretation is enhanced by the excellent acting of Clive Owen as the here-named Rene Gallimard, assigned to the French Embassy in China after the Communist takeover. Owen has the burden of convincing an audience that he is not stupid. But in a key scene in which he demands to see his lover naked, he doesn’t follow through.
Owen as Rene is given the task of recalling his story after we meet him in a Paris prison cell in 1986. He skillfully communicates credibility, helping to put a stamp of truth on the oddball tale.
We soon meet Jin Ha as the opera singer Song Liling. Gallimard is a sucker for Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” and he falls fatefully in love even though he is married.
Taymor gives us Communist Chinese dances in celebration of Mao and the revolution, various panels as décor and a wispy projection of fluttering butterflies to fade out the drama. She makes the most of the courtroom trial involving the espionage charges.
But all of the trappings still make it tough to accept the concept that Gallimard could carry on with a man who has a penis and testicles and still think he is with a woman for so many years. The play has a tall wall to scale. At the Cort Theater, 138 West 48th Street. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed October 31, 2017.