The Internet Theater Magazine of Reviews, Features, Annotated Listings







Etcetera and
Short Term Listings


NYC Restaurants


New Jersey







Free Updates
A CurtainUp Review
The Shanghai Gesture

I took fate in my hands—and ran—but the gods ran faster—and tonight they caught up with me.——Mother Goddamn
The Shanghai Gesture
Larry Pine & Tina Chen in The Shanghai Gesture
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
First, a truth in advertising note: Both the press release and the website of the Mirror Company, under whose auspices John Colton's The Shanghai Gesture is being revived at the Julia Miles Theater, declared this to be the first New York production since its 1926 Broadway debut for a more than 2-year run — also the first to star an Asian actress (Tina Chen) as Mother Goddamn. It so happens that the Peccadillo Theater Company and the Yangtze Repertory Theatre of America presented a co-production of The Shanghai Gesture in 2002, with an Asian Mother Goddamn — a production which was in fact, reviewed at Curtainup (review).

Since I did not write that 2002 review or see it, I can't compare it to the production by Mirror Company that I just saw. However, given that this is an 80-year-old theatrical curiosity best known via the sanitized 1941 film that changed the brothel setting to a gambling establishment, this is not a case of who's first to revive this, but whether it's worth digging out of theatrical attic. The answer is yes and no. Yes, if you mount it as a camp-y sendup shades of classic deconstructions like Speed Hedda by Robert Prior and his Fabulous Monsters or the late Charles Ludlum's Ridiculous Theater. (e.g. Speed Hedda and The Mystery of Irma Vep). No if you opt to do it more or less straight up which is the case for both the 2002 revival and the one now being shown.

Neither Marsha Sheiness's adaptation of Colton's 1928 script or Robert Kalfin's direction make this dated story of opium\ and sex addiction, vengeance, murder and repentance more than a pretty to look at museum piece. Still, Kalfin and his set, costume and lighting designers (Michael Anania, Gail Cooper-Hecht and Paul Hudson) deserve a shout-out for evoking the play's red-hot atmosphere of sex, drugs and Mother Goddamn's vitriol on the Julia Miles Theater's tight stage.

The two story set is peopled with a larger cast than you're likely to see in many a more high profile production. Ah, but there's the rub. Nice as it is to see such a large cast on any stage, there's no pleasure in size if it isn't matched by the quality of the performances. Alas, while this production has some okay performances, the same can't be said for the two leads. — Tina Chen as Mother Goddamn and Larry Pine as Sir Guy Charteris the British lover of her youth who sold her into sexual slavery to preserve his marriage and insure his future.

Since the play's action centers on a new year's banquet given by that abused young woman turned powerful Shanghai brothel doyenne to exact her revenge on Charteris's betrayal 20 years earlier, Mother Goddamn would be about 40 years old, if not younger. Though Chen's age is not listed anywhere, her resume is highlighted by her appearance in the 1969 movie Alice's Restaurant so it's fair to say that she's too old for this part. The age issue aside, she fails to be credible as a survivor version of Madame Butterfly. She also delivers the play's stilted dialogue at such a screaming pitch that one can't help worrying about her doing damage to her vocal chords.

As for Larry Pine, a usually fine actor, he just looks and acts uncomfortable in this role, especially when he occasionally takes a stab at a British accent. The interaction between Chen and Pine is so awkward that at times it actually feels like the camp-y take I think would have worked better than this straightforward if more explicit depiction of this late 20s Asian sin city (there's nudity as well as drinking and drugging). Chen's finale comes across so absurdly over-the-top that I found myself laughing several times when I know I wasn't intended to laugh.

When she's not too overwrought, Sabrina Veroczi is quite affecting as Poppy, the wild girl who'd rather be like Mother Goddamn than the well brought-up British girl her father wants her to be. However, her delivery also leans towards vocal endangering screaming. The most measured and convincing performance comes from Richard B. Watson as Mother Goddamn's British major domo.

As the program notes explain, John Colton grew up in Asia as the son of a diplomat and lived in Shanghai during the 1920s so that The Shanghai Gesture is based on his own observations on this cosmopolitan city, with its undercurrent of corruption and hypocrisy beneath the surface propriety of its international residents. The plot he concocted can be summed up to fit a Tweet: Pay-back time Banquet preparations. Mother Goddamn confronts hoity-toity friends at pay-back banquet. Ex-lover gets his comeuppance but revenge backfires. Sin-repent finale.

Most of the ensemble players don't have much to do. The brothel's girls for hire serve as an ever present chorus lingering around the winding stairs leading to the lower section which serve as Mother Goddamn's office, the dinner party, and bed chambers. Like the movie adaptation which has become a golden oldie cult hit mainly to see a gorgeous young Gene Tierney and soak up the atmosphere, the outfits and colorful surroundings in this The Shanghai Gesture upstage both the plot and the actors.

The Shanghai Gesture
Writtenby John Colton
Adapted by Marsha Sheiness Directed by Robert Kalfin
Cast: Starring Tina Chenas Mother Goddam and Larry Pine as Sir Guy Charteris, Sabrina Veroczi, as Poppy, Marcus Ho as Prince Oshima; also: Richard B. Watson, Sabrina Veroczi, John Haggerty, Elena McGhee, Rob Yang, Helen Coxe, John Fitzgibbon, Allen Lewis Rickman, Victoria Guthrie, Erin Krakow, Robert Lydiard, Seth Powers, Jacey Powers, Jo Yaang, Roger Wang, Nick Sakai, Toshiji Takeshima, Hyosun Choi, Nadia Gan
iSets: Mchael Anania,
Costumes: Gail Cooper Hecht
Music & soundeffects: Margaret Pine
Lighting: Paul Hudson
Fight director: B. H. Barry
Mirror Repertory Company at The Julia Miles Theatre 424 West 55th Street 212.239.6200
From 4/21/09; opening 4/30/09; closing 5/17/09.
Tickets are $67, $52; student and senior tickets, $21
Wed - Sat at 8PM. Matinees are at 2PM on Saturday and 3PM Sundays, with additional Sunday performances at 7PM.
Running Time: Approx 2 1/2 hours including intermission
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer on April 29th
Highlight one of the responses below and click "copy" or"CTRL+C"
  • I agree with the review of The Shanghai Gesture
  • I disagree with the review of The Shanghai Gesture
  • The review made me eager to see The Shanghai Gesture
Click on the address link E-mail:
Paste the highlighted text into the subject line (CTRL+ V):

Feel free to add detailed comments in the body of the email. . .also the names and emails of any friends to whom you'd like us to forward a copy of this review.

You can also contact us at Curtainup at Facebook or Curtainup at Twitter
Try for great seats to
Jersey Boys
The Little Mermaid
Lion King
Shrek The Musical

South Pacific  Revival
South Pacific

In the Heights
In the Heights

Playbill 2007-08 Yearbook

Leonard Maltin's Classic Movie Guide
Leonard Maltin's 2008 Movie Guide


©Copyright 2009, Elyse Sommer.
Information from this site may not be reproduced in print or online without specific permission from