NEW YORK - This brave and engrossing new play by David Henry Hwang (author of

M. Butterfly

, which the Philadelphia Theatre Company is reviving next month), is about "yellow face," the theatrical tradition of white actors playing Asian roles, with taped eyes and makeup. Part autobiography, part documentary, part self-parody, part protest play,

Yellow Face

, with its superb cast, is funny and startling and moving.

Creating a character called by the playwright's own initials, DHH (Hoon Lee), walks us through the Actor's Equity scandale caused by the casting of Caucasian Jonathan Pryce as a Eurasian in Miss Saigon. Hwang, as the prominent Asian American in the theatrical community, was prominent in the protest.

Then the moral high ground quickly eroded when he discovered that he himself had mistakenly cast a Caucasian actor (Noah Bean) to play an Asian role in his own play. Since it is illegal to ask an actor's race in an audition, and since it has become so difficult to tell - either from looks or last names - who's what, the mistake was understandable. Pointedly and amusingly, this play has been cast with actors whose looks and names comment on this very problem, since Bean has unambiguous looks - unlike, cleverly, the two women in the cast (Julienne Hanzelka Kim and the excellent Kathryn A. Layng).

What starts as a farce - and Hwang is merciless in mocking himself - turns grim and scary: The late-'90s "Donorgate" campaign-contribution probe implicated Hwang's California-banker father (Francis Jue in a moving, finely crafted performance) in money-laundering for China. Things turn sinister when a New York Times reporter referred to as NWOAOC ("name withheld on advice of counsel") tries to manipulate DHH into saving himself by betraying his father. Anthony Torn is wonderfully creepy as NWOAOC.

DHH's father is the American Dreamer incarnate: the immigrant who believes in the promise of opportunity, who is convinced that with imagination and determination anyone can succeed. So Yellow Face has all the elements of the Classic American Play: the American Dream - fulfilled and betrayed - and the inevitable father-son conflict. It takes up issues of racism as fundamental to our society, and addresses the complex dangers of "cultural authenticity" and ethnic solidarity.

And it also has hallmarks of the Contemporary American Play: It's highly theatrical - not through spectacle but through our watching actors create a variety of characters; what better way to ask big questions about the nature of identity? In DHH, Hwang has invented a version of himself who discovers that "my face became my mask." This play is a very public and courageous unmasking.

Yellow Face

Written by David Henry Hwang. Directed by Leigh Silverman. Costumes by Myung Hee Cho, lights by Donald Holder, sound by Darron L West.

Cast: Noah Bean (Marcus), Francis Jue (HYH, etc.), Julienne Hanzelka Kim (Leah, etc.), Kathryn A. Layng (Jane, Miles, etc.), Hoon Lee (DHH), Lucas Caleb Rooney (Stuart, Rocco, etc.), Anthony Torn (Announcer, etc.)

Playing at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., New York. Through Dec. 23. Tickets $50 (students with ID $25). Information: 212-967-7555 or www.publictheater.org

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