Biographical plays, when they fail, usually do so in one of two ways. Some, like the recent Becoming Dr. Ruth, are busy travelogues of the subject’s life, narrating the major events as if from a tour bus but skimping on current drama. Others, like End of the Rainbow, featuring Judy Garland at her sad-clown finale, focus a microscope on a moment of crisis that is almost by definition unrepresentative. David Henry Hwang’s Kung Fu, about the martial arts star Bruce Lee, somehow manages to fail both ways: It’s busy and false. Its many crises feel artificially constructed, even if they are biographically accurate, and it never achieves a recognizably human, in-the-moment texture.
The play started life as a musical, and some of its problems may have begun there. Announced in 2008 as Bruce Lee: Journey to the West, with songs by David Yazbek and direction by Bartlett Sher, that version never seems to have gotten beyond a 2009 reading starring B.D. Wong. But the format of scenes building to numbers lives on in the current script, with martial arts demonstrations taking the place of song and dance. This sounds like a clever idea, and indeed it’s fascinating, for a while, to see how Hwang (who wrote the book for Elton John’s Aida and for the 2002 revisal of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song) locates kung fu corollaries to traditional musical moments within Lee’s story. There’s an introductory “charm” number (in which the teenaged Lee demonstrates his outré moves to a snooty ballet dancer), an uptempo act-two opener based on a television Western he hoped to star in, and even a literal dance at the gym.
But between the action sequences, the script has a bad musical’s skeletal quality. Scenes are too rushed (and too obviously hitched to thematic devices) to provide more than a blurry version of Lee’s Wikipedia entry. His exposure to street gangs in Hong Kong; his fights with his father, a Chinese Opera performer; his dreams of success as a martial-arts teacher and actor in the U.S.; the racism that sent him back to Hong Kong to make his classic movies; and the hubris that in effect killed him at 32: Each gets its little demonstration, along with a thumb-jab indicating the direction of the next number.
Then, when the number arrives, it is usually disappointing. Turns out, kung fu “dancing” is not especially expressive. Memorably defined in the script as “the art of fighting without fighting,” the martial art seems incapable, at least as offered here by fight director Emmanuel Brown and choreographer Sonya Tayeh, of dramatizing anything but aggression. This is exciting the first few times, less so the twelfth. It doesn’t help that the choreographic highlight of the play is the number in which a debased idea of kung fu is packaged as mainstream American entertainment in a sequence representing Lee’s performance as Kato the sidekick on the 1966 series The Green Hornet. Call it satire, but deliberate cheese is still cheese.
These are honorable conceptual failures, to be expected of good playwrights and directors (in this case, the estimable Leigh Silverman) looking to stretch themselves and their material. But it’s hard to pinpoint what is causing the overall cheesiness of the production. Lee, whose approach to fighting was philosophically complex, and whose ideas are referenced in various koan-like sayings, nevertheless comes off as a dim bulb, a stooge unaware until too late of what the audience knows instantly. Having seen plays before this one, we are already familiar with aggressive characters who have Daddy Issues, who sacrifice everyone around them to their dream, who naively believe that America cannot crush a man who’s strong enough. It’s not that Lee should come off as if he’d studied Odets (or even Gypsy) — but the play ought to seem as if it had. Instead it embraces without apology its borrowed psychology, canned climaxes, fake misunderstandings, and lame bits of humor. “I chew gum. You want to know why?” Lee asks an acolyte. “Because Fu man chew.”
I suppose it’s possible that Hwang is actually spoofing the writing in kung fu movies; that might also explain the acting. (For the record, Cole Horibe, the So You Think You Can Dance contestant who plays Lee, moves well.) But nothing in Hwang’s varied output to date, including M. Butterfly, Golden Child, and even the recent comedy Chinglish, suggests a less than serious approach to the problems of cultural assimilation. I think he intends to be serious here too, as he occasionally finds ways to dramatize instead of merely mention the ironies of a character who mistook his country’s ideals (Lee was born in San Francisco) for its reality. “Philosophy should be practical,” he insists. It’s refreshing, and no accident, that most of the white characters in Kung Fu are played by Asian or black actors. But the one who sums up the disappointments of Lee’s U.S. career with the chilling line “Who needs America?” is his wife, Linda — a white girl from Washington.
Kung Fu is at the Signature Theater’s Irene Diamond Stage through March 30.