David Henry Hwang, the Tony-winning writer of M. Butterfly, uses elements from his highly publicized 1993 Broadway flop Face Value to write a winner that weaves fact and fiction into wonderful comedy and insightful drama. It's unclear what elements of this exploration of race and political correctness actually happened, but that's not important. Director Leigh Silverman deftly guides a remarkable cast through a maze of story lines, locations, and characters.
The stage version of Hwang is portrayed by Hoon Lee, who, with the help of a cast playing multiple roles, traces events from the last 15 or so years that alter the life of an Asian-American activist artist. Hwang, both the real one and the fictional one, protested the casting on Broadway of English actor Jonathan Pryce as an Asian in the musical Miss Saigon. Soon after, thanks to an odd conversation with his father, Henry Y. Hwang (Tzi Ma), the playwright begins work on Face Value. But when it comes time to cast the lead part, Hwang accidentally chooses a white actor, Marcus (Peter Scanavino), to play an Asian. Hwang is able to fire Marcus, but the play closes anyway thanks to bad reviews, while Marcus continues his false life as an Asian actor.
Through every minute, Lee anchors the action. His honest performance keeps the character likable even when he acts foolish, egotistical, or rude. Ma is equally exuberant in a variety of roles, in particular Henry Y. Hwang, who always thinks his son is making a mistake. The prototypical infuriating father figure is vibrant and new in Ma's hands. And Scanavino injects heart and sincerity into the role of Marcus, who ironically is the play's conscience, even though he is committing an act of deception. Also, Julienne Hanzelka Kim, Kathryn A. Layng, and Lucas Caleb Rooney ably tackle numerous roles of both genders and varying ethnic backgrounds.
Silverman sets a rapid pace that doesn't let up for the entire first act, and the result is that the already funny dialogue and situations hit even harder. In the second act, Hwang deals with the political ramifications of racism, and Yellow Face loses some of its initial focus. But the characters are so well-defined that the story winds its way back to its initial concept of finding personal identity. It's a story that's as much fun to talk about afterward as it is to experience.
Presented by Center Theatre Group and the Public Theatre in association with East West Players at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A. Tue.-Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 2:30 & 7:30 p.m., Sun. 2:30 p.m. (Dark Jun. 5-8.) May 20-Jul. 1. (213) 972-7376. www.centertheatregroup.org.