Words take a backseat to movement in David Henry Hwang’s delicate The Dance and the Railroad, now playing through March 24 at Off Broadway’s Pershing Square Signature Center. Not that the brief 1981 play — which marked the second entry in Hwang’s ”Trilogy of Chinese America” — is short on dialogue. Its two characters, 21-year-old Lone (Yuekun Wu) and 18-year-old Ma (Ruy Iskandar), speak the same language; they were both shipped from China to America to work on the Transcontinental Railroad; they share a history and hopes. But their main means of communication is dance.
Two guys on a mountaintop perform an elaborately choreographed Chinese opera. It’s an exceptionally creative conceit — and nowhere near as silly as it sounds. (Well, except for the scene in which Ma pretends to be a duck, but even that’s only a little silly.) Because although they’re in America — on Gold Mountain, ”where work is play and the sun scares off snow,” or so the naive Ma believes — they’re struggling, like so many of the characters in Hwang’s plays, to retain some part of their Chinese identities. One, naturally, struggles harder: Lone is a serious student of Chinese opera; Ma wants to learn mostly to pass the time during a railway strike. But their motivations hardly matter when they’re performing — artfully constructed routines that seem to seamlessly blend acrobatics, ballet, martial arts, and music. (Opera consultant Qian Yi provided the intricate steps, which both actors execute with enviable grace and ease.)
Of course, a true Cantonese opera would be a spectacle — elaborate costumes, makeup, sets, and the like. But it’s hard to imagine anything more moving than the sight of Yuekun Wu and Ruy Iskandar in simple peasant garb, perched atop the jagged, unforgiving rocks of the ironically named Gold Mountain. B+
(Tickets: SignatureTheatre.org or 212-244-7529)