The Shanghai Gesture
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 29, 2009
The Shanghai Gesture, written 80-some years ago by playwright John Colton, is a surprisingly sturdy melodrama. It tells the story of Mother Goddam, a Chinese woman who runs a brothel in Shanghai that is frequented by the most powerful businessmen and politicians—Chinese and foreign alike. She gathers secrets about them and uses them to consolidate her power in the city, which is apparently unequaled.
The play unfolds during an eventful day and night. Mother Goddam has invited Sir Guy Charteris, the head of the largest British concern in the city, to a very special dinner party. The other guests are men of similar stature from Japan, China, France, Spain, and America; their wives, startlingly, are invited as well. We spend the first scene of Act One wondering what Mother Goddam has in mind for this dinner party of hers. We find out in Scene II, which culminates in a reveal so dramatic (if not particularly surprising) that we spend intermission wondering what on earth can possibly happen in Act Two that will top the climax of Act One.
I was pleased to discover that Colton has plenty of stuff up his sleeve. Act Two delivers what it promises, and then some. Sure, it's pure over-the-top, histrionic claptrap at some level—but the characters and plot are so well-formed that I was certainly willing to let Colton lead me where he wanted. (Obviously, I will not be divulging any of the twists and turns of the story in this review.)
Even better, the story of The Shanghai Gesture makes cogent and still-valuable points about the relationship between East and West. There's a terrific line in the play where Sir Guy and his British confreres assert that they have managed to make life in Shanghai just like life in England, which is to say completely insulated from the "native" Chinese population and customs. The arrogance of the thought is fairly breathtaking, but it's not one that Americans or other Westerners haven't thought thousands of times before or since.
If ultimately the arc of The Shanghai Gesture follows the "rules" of American playwriting circa 1926 (when it was written)—by which I mean that the bad people are punished, the good/innocent people (such as they are in Colton's fairly sordid world) are rewarded, and the Westerners make out better than the Chinese—well, that's to be expected, isn't it? This is still a play worth seeing and contemplating.
I just wish that the production on offer from The Mirror Repertory Company was one I could commend to you. Alas, it suffers from a couple of very significant troubles. First, at the performance reviewed, most of the cast seemed underrehearsed, with leads Larry Pine (Sir Guy) and especially Tina Chen (Mother Goddam) stumbling over many of their lines. Chen, in fact, had not yet seemed to arrive at a place where she could create a consistent characterization. This has perhaps been rectified with the passage of time (though it doesn't excuse the fact that the producers invited the press and public to see a show that clearly wasn't on its feet).
The second problem is Michael Anania's set (presumably approved by director Robert Kalfin), which mostly consists of an enormous spiraling staircase that covers something like half of the tiny stage of the Julia Miles Theater. It makes maneuvering on the stage difficult for the performers, and also has the unintended consequence of placing a huge staircase in every scene, whether or not one is called for. (For example, Mother Goddam's Grand Red Hall of Lily & Lotus Roots, where she serves her guests dinner in Act I, Scene I, and her boudoir, where she spends most of Act Two, each has a huge staircase in it.)
Kalfin, Chen, Pine, Anania and many others involved in this production are theatre veterans with deservedly fine reputations; suffice to say that this Shanghai Gesture does not show them to good advantage. Which is a shame, not only because they are certainly capable of better work, but because this play is deserving of a stronger revival than this one.