'Golden Child' review: a tale of China

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Director Leigh Silverman (from left) and playwright David Director Leigh Silverman (from left) and playwright David Henry Hwang with cast members Julyana Soelistyo, Lesley Hu, Greg Watanabe, Anie Q and Jennifer Lim attend the "Golden Child" opening night party. (Nov. 13, 2012) Photo Credit: Getty Images

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David Henry Hwang ("M. Butterfly") is the playwright deservedly getting Signature Theatre's concentration this year. "Golden Child," seen in New York in 1996 and again in a revised version two years later, is a culture-clash folk tale based on stories the Chinese-American's grandmother told him about his ancestors' Christian conversion in 1918.

This latest version compresses and changes the modern framing device from a playwright and a ghost in New York to a student asking his questions of an old relative in Manila. This wisely puts the emphasis on the fascinating middle section, in which a wealthy husband tries to introduce Western ways to his three wives -- and one daughter, the audacious "golden child" who lives to tell the tale.

Although Hwang clearly recognizes the horrors of the wives' forced ignorance and crippling foot binding, he is equally fascinated with the sophisticated, ritualized, convoluted layers of female self-deprecation in the culture. But the modest production, directed by Leigh Silverman, feels oddly stilted and lacks the elegance of the earlier ones. The structure is neater, but the reach, less captivating.

WHAT "Golden Child"

WHERE Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St.

INFO $25; 212-244-7529; signaturetheatre.org

BOTTOM LINE Middling start to Hwang season

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