The primary limitation of “Shanghai Moon,” now playing at the Luna Playhouse, is the small audience it will draw. That is a shame, because this is a clever parody, both witty and engaging, of a particular movie genre.
Purposely drawing from films of the 1930s with an affinity for the Far East, author Charles Busch certainly knows his source material and gives it a thoughtful homage — and then some.
When the elderly Lord Allington (Michael Gregory) and his younger wife, Sylvia (R. Christofer Sands), arrive in Shanghai as guests in the palatial home of Gen. Gong Fei (Christopher Chen), trouble is imminent. The general’s spiritual advisor, Dr. Wu (Dale Sandlin), and housemaid/mistress, Mah Li (Amanda Sevold), are instantly skeptical of the British couple, who have been sent to procure a priceless jade artifact.
Lady Allington’s attempt to ingratiate herself by remarking that she is “simply mad for orientalia” to show her appreciation of Chinese art doesn’t help matters. And Mah Li’s literal interpretation of her guest’s request to “make dog something to eat” sets the stage for continuing animosity.
Complicating matters are Mrs. Carroll (Sarah Lilly), who runs the local brothel and has made herself an enemy of the general, so the two of them have developed separate plans for revenge. As the general and Lady Allington find they can’t deny their mutual attraction, she reveals her sordid history filled with “kielbasa and bitterness” that plainly reveals how she got to her current social standing.
The appearance of Pug Talbot (Minda Grace Ware), a shady sea captain who knows Lady Allington from years past, confirms the prediction that “the white woman brings ill fortune” into many lives, most notably her own.
Busch has crafted a seamless blend of light melodrama and subtle comedy, well aided by a talented cast. In the primary gender-bending role of Lady Sylvia, Sands plays the part to its extreme, alternately displaying over-the-top comedy and in-your-face pity with some hilarious facial tics.
And I mean that literally, as it was extremely difficult not to be drawn into the action as Sands delivered a monologue while staring directly at me just a few feet away. Talk about the benefits of a small theater.
Sevold’s portrayal of the dainty but crafty servant had just the right amount of Chinese accent, and you could always see there was something reeling in her character’s mind.
Chen gave the general the right blend of passion, pity and misguided anachronistic pride, all of which would ensure his eventual downfall.
David Calhoun’s single set was well designed with appropriate Chinese influences of the period.
As the show’s program notes, there is a good amount of political incorrectness here.
But for those who understand what’s going on and won’t be bothered by the overt stereotypes, you might revel in this saucy little dish. Just be careful of the tea you drink with it.
PHILLIP HAIN is a Glendale resident who enjoys theater, movies from the 1930s and Chinese food.