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Although David Henry Hwang's first play at the Public Theater in 13 years is not the tour de force of "M. Butterfly," it is a magical, involving look into the breakup of Asian feudal customs. Titled "Golden Child," it is directed by James Lapine in the same enchanted style that he used for "Twelve Dreams." Performed in Tony Straiges' pastel setting which resembles Chinese watercolors, the play carries the message that only when we come to terms with our ancestors can we pass on their legacy.

"Golden Child" is a memory play ˆ la "The Glass Menagerie" in which the hero both relives the past and narrates it. Andrew Kwong, awaiting the birth of his first child, is visited by the ghost of his recently deceased grandmother, who warns him that it is time to stop running away from his heritage. In his reverie, Andrew relives his great-grandfather's biennual visit home to his three wives back in Amoy in Southeast China during 1918-19. The ghostly grandmother drops her funereal weeds and becomes the golden child she once was, the oldest child of the first wife. The play is dominated by the rivalry among the three wives when the husband, Eng Tieng-Bin, brings home Western ideas and converts to Christianity. Tsai Chin is poignant as the traditional first wife who attempts to hold on to the old ways in spite of the inexorable attraction of the new freedoms. Much humor is derived from her confrontations with Jodi Long as the ambitious second wife, who sees which way the wind is blowing. Liana Pai is a lovely vision as the beautiful and naive third wife, who is used as a pawn by the others. All are exquisitely dressed by Martin Pakledinaz in historically accurate Chinese robes. Julyana Soelistyo, making her New York debut, is charming as both the ghostly grandmother and the precocious, talkative child she once was. The men's roles are less well-defined, but Stan Egi as both Andrew and his great grandfather, and John Christopher Jones as the Christian missionary who precipitates the changes in the Eng family are fine. "Golden Child" is warmed by the glowing lighting of David J. Lander and the late Richard Nelson that recalls Chinese silk screens.

Produced by the Joseph Papp Public Theater/New York Shakes-peare Festival, in association with South Coast Repertory, at the Newman Theater, 425 Lafayette St., NYC, Nov. 19-

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