NEW YORK — In the first scene of Kung Fu (*** out of four), David Henry Hwang's new play about the iconic martial artist Bruce Lee, the central character is trying to pick up a girl.
It's 1959, and Patty, as she is introduced, is a Japanese-American college student and aspiring modern dancer, enamored of Martha Graham. Bruce has come to Seattle from Hong Kong, bringing with him a different set of influences and experiences. But before she blows him off, he shows her a few moves — and she returns the favor, their bodies communicating both tension and grace.
"You're not my type," Patty finally tells Bruce, explaining, "I usually date Americans." He presses on. "In China, many hero!" he insists in slightly broken English, to which she responds, "Maybe in Hong Kong, but not here."
The scene is brief, but beautifully played, by ensemble member Kristen Faith Oei and So You Think You Can Dance alumnus Cole Horibe. And it provides a telling introduction to a work that uses simple language and fluid, vibrant movement to examine our notions of, and misconceptions about, race, cultural identity and manhood.
Those who equate its title with bombastic action films may find Kung Fu, which opened off-Broadway Monday at the Pershing Square Signature Center, surprisingly delicate. The playwright and director Leigh Silverman — who teamed with Hwang on another Signature Theatre Company production, Golden Child, as well as Broadway's Chinglish — emphasize the thoughtful and lyrical qualities of "gung fu." Bruce tells his pupils that the practice is more about concentration than lashing out, calling it "fighting without fighting."
Mind you, our hero — whose life is traced from his late teens to a couple of years before his death in 1973, at the age of 32, with flashbacks to his boyhood — isn't portrayed as the most mellow of pacifists. Haunted by the memory of his father, presented here as a player of clown roles (Lee's dad was a Cantonese Opera performer) and by stereotypes of Asian men as weak and deferential, he is eager to assert his autonomy and masculinity, whether in pursuing a film career or defying his wife's suggestions that she work outside the house.
Horibe, in his New York stage debut, makes this struggle accessible and compelling. He also dazzles in sequences fusing dance and martial arts, choreographed with both high energy and disciplined elegance by Sonya Tayeh. (Du Yun provides groovy original music to accompany the routines.)
In addressing weighty issues with a light touch, and wry, sometimes goofy humor, Kung Fu can flirt with glibness. The second act features an escapade with the actor James Coburn, one of several stars who studied with Lee, that ends with Bruce being abruptly rejected and humiliated. (Hollywood soon follows suit, with Bruce learning that a TV series he has been developing has been renamed and handed to a white actor named David Carradine.)
But Kung Fu ends more quietly and poignantly, with a scene that reveals its protagonist's growth and also confirms his dignity and resilience. For a play to accomplish that convincingly, after also leaving us briskly entertained, is no small feat.