Newman Theater, the Public Theater
425 Lafayette St. at Astor P.
Through November 17, $100
This is the last weekend to see Soft Power, David Henry Hwang’s “play with a musical” at the Public’s Newman Theater. Hwang uses several real events as inspiration for this East meets West tale of politics, strange bedfellows, and culture clash: On November 29, 2015, the playwright was stabbed in the neck in a seemingly random attack that might have been racially motivated; on November 8, 2016, Hillary Clinton lost the presidential election to Donald Trump; and Chinese producers approached the LA-born Hwang multiple times to write a big show for them. In Soft Power, Dragon Entertainment Group North American president Xūe Xíng (Conrad Ricamora) wants DHH (Francis Jue) to write a Broadway-style musical for its new theater in Shanghai, based on a popular Chinese romantic comedy called Stick with Your Mistake, in which an unhappy couple decides to stay together because that’s what Chinese people do to save face. DHH says he will consider it only if they change the ending and the husband and wife go their separate ways to try to find true love.
On election night, DHH, Xūe Xíng, and his close friend, Zoe Samuels (Alyse Alan Louis), go to Lincoln Center to see a smash production of The King and I as part of a campaign rally for Hillary Clinton (Louis) that will be followed by a gathering at McDonald’s. The next day, Xūe criticizes an American system that can result in Trump’s victory and DHH is stabbed in the neck, perhaps by an anti-immigrant Trump lover. DHH goes ahead and writes the musical, with life imitating art imitating life, as Shanghai producer Xūe Xíng travels to New York City to convince DHH to write a musical for him as Xūe, a married father, falls in love with Hillary Clinton.
Directed by Leigh Silverman (The Lifespan of a Fact, Hwang’s Chinglish and Golden Child), Soft Power has several terrific moments, including when the orchestra is revealed — the audience gasps in unison at the sight — and when Samuels tears the roof off the joint in a rousing solo as Clinton singing about her experiences on the campaign trail. Clint Ramos’s set also features a plane mimicking the ship from Lincoln Center’s The King and I. But as with many Hwang (M. Butterfly, Flower Drum Song) works, his political leanings come through too didactically, too one-sided. More subtlety would have helped. “Communism in China has raised hundreds of millions out of poverty,” Xūe tells DHH. “But here in America, you have too much freedom. You really believe your voting will force the rich to give up their money? Here, you cannot even force your mentally ill to give up their guns.” DHH asks himself, “Am I even gonna be able to live in this country anymore? Almost half the population just voted for a guy who thinks [Asians] don’t really belong here. That we should be nothing more than supporting characters in someone else’s story.”
Later, DHH sings, “Xing, you’ve helped me see / I don’t have to play a role / I’m not two halves, I’m whole / Enough, just as I am / It’s something to be proud of / I guess that’s love.” Hwang wrote the play and the lyrics, with music and additional lyrics by Jeanine Tesori (Fun Home, Caroline, or Change) — among the revealing song titles are “Dutiful,” “I’m with Her,” “Good Guy with a Gun,” and “Democracy.” Danny Troob’s orchestrations are fairly standard, as is Sam Pinkleton’s sometimes goofy choreography. Soft Power, which comes on too hard, is also at least the fourth recent play I’ve seen in which the narrative breaks away into a panel discussion / group therapy session that evaluates what we’ve been watching; I’ll be fine if that doesn’t come along again anytime soon.