In “Golden Shield,” which opened Tuesday at the Manhattan Theater Club, a blowhard executive at a tech company comes up with a way to build a more effective firewall: decentralize it into multiple checkpoints.
This appears to also have been the strategy of the young Thai-Australian playwright Anchuli Felicia King, whose show belongs to multiple genres all at once: It is a legal drama, a romance, a story of sibling estrangement, and a cautionary tale about technology and the cost of political activism. “Golden Shield” is a lot to chew on and somehow it is not filling.
The director May Adrales nimbly steers the production, which goes back and forth between 2006 and 2016 as we follow a class-action lawsuit by eight Chinese dissidents against the fictional ONYS Systems, an American company, led by the aforementioned tech bro, Marshall McLaren (Max Gordon Moore), contracted by the Chinese government to build a system filtering problematic internet content — the Golden Shield of the title. (The case borrows elements from real-life ones against Yahoo and Cisco.) Julie Chen (Cindy Cheung), a Chinese American partner in a law firm, leads the charge on behalf of the plaintiffs.
Besides Marshall, Julie clashes with her younger sister, Eva (Ruibo Qian), whom she has hired as a translator because Eva has a better command of Mandarin. Julie says she picked her sister because she wants “someone I trust over there,” but the two women can’t stand each other, let alone trust each other. Eva won’t even tell her sibling how she makes a living, only specifying that “it’s not illegal.”
Julie is a little slow on the uptake, and it’s a safe bet most audience members will be way ahead of her. She also appears to be terrible in court (I kept mentally interjecting “Objection!”) and flusters easily. “Where the [expletive] am I gonna get a Mandarin translator in Dallas?” Julie wonders after finding herself in a bind in the city where the trial is taking place. Where, indeed, could she possibly locate this unicorn in a huge agglomeration with enough corporate headquarters to sustain a cottage industry of specialized translators?
The show’s main concern is communication, or rather miscommunication, an idea it incorporates in its very fabric with the Translator (Fang Du), an omniscient character who hovers on the periphery of the action. At regular intervals he volunteers context, explains what is spoken and verbalizes what is not — he essentially dispenses audio footnotes.
At worst, which is most of the time, the Translator spells out the obvious, ruining the silences, allusions and, yes, lies that undergird many conversations, and by extension theater. It’s as if someone were filling in the blanks in a Pinter play. A little after Eva tells an Australian nonprofit employee named Amanda (Gillian Saker, in an unfortunate wig that looks as if the 1970s had crash-landed on it) that they could make out in the women’s room, for example, Amanda coyly announces, “I feel a sudden and overwhelming urge to powder my nose.” The hint is none too subtle, and yet the Translator immediately informs us that she means, “Meet me in the bathroom.”
At best, which is not nearly enough, the Translator sneaks in insights that are tantalizingly thought-provoking, as when he steers a conversation between Marshall and a Chinese official, or says that his job “is not really to translate but to interpret. Not to transmit truth to truth but to give you informed approximations.”
A wealth of possibilities lies in the difference between these two words, but “Golden Shield” is more interested in histrionics than in how approximations can get close to the truth, or at least a truth.
Through June 12 at City Center Stage I, Manhattan; manhattantheatreclub.com. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes.
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