Presented by Pan Asian Repertory Theatre at the West End Theatre, 263 W. 86 St., NYC, April 2–24.
In Elizabeth Wong's "China Doll," the life of actor Anna May Wong is given what could be called the "Sunset Boulevard" treatment, as an elderly, embittered, and alcoholic Wong recounts her life story for Conrad, a young student to whom she's rented out the garage apartment adjacent to her Hollywood home.
While the play does a generally good job of outlining Wong's accomplishments, audiences should not consider anything they learn in "Doll" to be definitive fact. There are inaccuracies throughout and liberties (such as the creation of composite characters) are taken as the script shuttles back and forth in time.
This structure, while theatrically valid, does a disservice to Wong's inner cultural battle and her need to develop into a Western ideal of Asian exoticism. While Rosanne Ma's Wong can often be compelling, the accent and gestures that Wong affected come and go in Ma's portrayal.
One wishes that director Tisa Chang had helped Ma deliver a more clearly delineated performance in this time-traveling script, so that the conflict inherent in Wong's cultural bifurcation might have been clearer and thus more poignant. Chang does, however, keep Elizabeth Wong's script moving with ease (with the help of James F. Primm II's effective lighting) across Kaori Akazawa's sparsely furnished set with Asian art deco accents.
Surrounding Ma's Wong is a seven-member ensemble playing multiple roles. Peter Von Berg makes for a charmingly fey Max Factor and also commands as a bigoted elocution teacher. Jamie Cummings moves from being smarmy and slick as Douglas Fairbanks to earnest and sweet as one of Wong's beaus. Sandy York and Michael Scott both turn in credible performances as Marlene Dietrich and Gary Cooper, respectively. Ruth Zhang and Jackson Ning bring dignity to the roles of Wong's ultratraditional mother and father.