Polygamy may not be the easiest issue for American theatergoers to appreciate. Funny and endearing as we may find any or all of the three wives in David Henry Hwang's 1996 drama Golden Child, they feel worlds apart even though they're only about 8,000 miles and 100 years away. So the current Off Broadway revival, at the Pershing Square Signature Center through Dec. 16, does everything in its power to bring the delicate drama closer to the audience...with disappointingly uneven results.
The Signature's smallest stage, the 191-seat Alice Griffin Jewel Box theater, cradles the multigenerational story beautifully. And Hwang has done some substantial rewriting most significantly (and advantageously) to the flashback structure. Golden Child was always a memory play, but now it begins with elderly grandmother Eng Ahn (Annie Q), her teenage grandson (Greg Watanabe), and a ginormous 1968-era tape recorder. (Hwang got the source material for Golden Child by using just such a device to record family stories from his own grandmother.) As Annie Q transforms into a plucky 10-year-old version of golden child Eng Ahn, Watanabe shifts (much less believably) into the role of her father, thrice-married businessman Eng Tieng-Bin, in 1918 Fujian, China.
When the bickering and bantering between the women begins, it's clear that director Leigh Silverman who helmed Hwang's quick-witted and underappreciated Chinglish on Broadway in 2011 is aiming for the funny bone. And who can blame her? First wife Eng Siu-Yong (Julyana Soelistyo, Tony-nominated as Ahn in the original Golden Child) is an opium addict, second wife Eng Luan (Chinglish breakout Jennifer Lim) is a backstabbing schemer, and third wife Eng Eling (Lesley Hu) gets a kick out of scrubbing dung off the streets of the village. Imagine the comic possibilities! Just wait for the claws to come out once they realize they're competing for not only their husband's affections but also for their positions: Tieng-Bin's newfound interest in Christianity cue the arrival of the ''white demon,'' a.k.a. Reverend Baines (Matthew Maher) means that two of the women may soon get their walking papers. (Sample advice from Siu-Yong: ''If you can't live with dishonesty, you have no business calling yourself a woman.'' And: ''It's the simplest thing to manipulate a man. Just call him your master, and he's your slave for life.'')
Soelistyo, Lim, and Hu do stellar jobs portraying women who were put into positions almost inconceivably unfair. Lim, in particular, reveals a surprising amount of heart beneath all her character's sass. But as Tieng-Bin, Watanabe presents little more than a cardboard cutout of a man: He's physically stiff and vocally impassive, although Hwang's dialogue is anything but. The wives pretty much steal the show, but in early-20th-century China, they're nothing without a man. B–
(Tickets: SignatureTheatre.org or 212-244-7529)