Incident at Hidden Temple

by Brooke Pierce

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday January 27, 2017

Ying Ying Li and Walter Hu
Ying Ying Li and Walter Hu  

Now in its 40th year, the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre has been showcasing the talents of Asian-American artists for decades, while also shining a light on the Asian-American experience. Damon Chua's new play, "Incident at Hidden Temple," now playing Off-Broadway at the Clurman Theatre, follows in this tradition in the setting of World War II China.

World War II has always been a popular setting for film and stage dramas, most often focusing on the European theater of the war. "Incident at Hidden Temple" gives us a window into a part of the war that isn't as well known to most Americans (or at least to those of us whose WWII knowledge comes largely from movies), which is the alliance that the U.S. had with China in fighting the Japanese.

A wartime murder-mystery-drama, the play begins with an American pilot being murdered, then cuts to a train screeching to a halt. College student Ava Chao (Ying Ying Li) disembarks to try to find out why the train has stopped, and strikes up a conversation with Asian-American Walter Hu (the charming Tim Liu), a sweet show-off who enthusiastically tells her that he's a pilot with the Flying Tigers, an American force flying alongside the Chinese.

The middle-of-nowhere that they have stopped in is a place called Hidden Temple, where there is indeed a hidden temple, if you're pure of heart enough to see it - or so says the wily blind man (the delightfully odd Dinh James Doan) who sends Ava on a wild goose chase looking for it. Unfortunately she finds herself stranded in Hidden Temple when she isn't able to get back in time onboard the departing train.

She makes her way to a nearby military base, desperate to have them help her find her little sister Lucy, who was on the train. General Cliff Van Holt (Jonathan Miles), who is in charge of the Flying Tigers, then proceeds to assign a young man named Buddy, whom Ava recognizes as Walter Hu, to take on the search.

"Incident at Hidden Temple" is full of mystery. Why was the pilot murdered? Why is Walter Hu pretending to be someone else? There are also a lot of suspicious characters, like the slightly sinister blind man and the general's right-hand woman, Jing. The mysterious aura of playwright Chua's story and characters is aided by Sheryl Liu's intriguing set design.

The play also offers insight into the fascinating political drama of that moment. While working with the Chinese to defeat their shared enemy, the Americans also had to figure out how to navigate the tensions between two factions in China, the Communists and the Nationalists. We get to see how both the American political and military honchos interacted with the leader of the Nationalists, Chiang Kai-Shek.

But while the setting and the historical situation at the center of the play are indeed very interesting, Chua's writing is uneven. The dialogue is sometimes stilted, there are plot developments that feel very unrealistic, and the resolutions of the various mysteries come off as a bit clumsy. "Incident at Hidden Temple" certainly has a great deal going for it, but could use some rewriting to better do justice to its promising story.

"Incident at Hidden Temple" runs through February 12 at the Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd St. in New York City. For information or tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit www.panasianrep.org.

Brooke Pierce is a freelance writer and playwright in New York City. Her plays have received staged readings at the American Theatre of Actors, the Ensemble Studio Theatre, and Stage One Theater. Brooke is a member of the Drama Desk and the Dramatists Guild.