By Brian Scott Lipton . . . 

“What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.” This now-classic line from the 1967 film Cool Hand Luke could be projected above the stage for the entirety of Anchuli Felicia King’s ambitious, multi-pronged drama, Golden Shield, now playing at Manhattan Theatre Club-New York City Center Stage 1.

Ostensibly about China’s (successful) attempt to create a strong and effective Internet firewall in advance of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, King’s work is about far more than how technology both hinders and helps our communications. She offers a myriad of reasons for why the truth of life often escapes our grasp, including shame, pride, resentment, good intentions, and literal mistranslations from one language to another. Indeed, you may think twice before opening your mouth again after seeing this show.

Kristen Hung and Michael C. Liu

Still, it’s frankly a bit too much for one play to handle, especially with the constant jumps back and forth in time and place (from 2006 to 2016, from China to Texas to Australia, among other locations)—transitions which director May Adrales doesn’t handle as smoothly as she might, and which are sometimes clumsily conveyed on (set designer) dots’ LED-heavy set. 

Moreover, for those who insist on plays having likable characters as their protagonists (something which I do not personally insist on), Golden Shield comes up a bit short. Cindy Cheung’s truthful, if less-than sympathetic, performance practically paints Julie Chen, the lawyer for a group of Chinese dissidents suing a U.S-based tech company, as little more than a raging egotist, rather than a woman of color trying to prove herself in a white male-dominated world. (Her opposing counsel Jane, a smooth-talking, often condescending Brit—well played by Gillian Saxer—only comes off slightly better.)

Max Gordon Moore and Daniel Jenkins

Julie, who clearly is lacking in people skills, also seems unduly harsh, interacting with her much younger sister Eva (an excellent Rubio Qian), who blames Julie for abandoning her as a child in Beijing, leaving her in the care of their reportedly “crazy” mother. While we may feel somewhat sorry for her, Eva proves to be no saint and gets her “revenge” on Julie in some fairly unorthodox ways. Never has family therapy seemed more important.

Meanwhile, little good can be said about Marshall McLaren (a pitch-perfect Max Gordon Moore), the tech company’s foul-mouthed, money-hungry and altogether slimy CEO. True, most of the other men in the work, such as the main plaintiff, Li Don (a moving Michael C. Liu) and Marshall’s weak right-hand man, Larry and Cindy’s mostly upstanding partner Richard (both evocatively portrayed by Daniel Jenkins), all fare somewhat better, though each has his own flaws. 

Ruibo Qian and Gillian Saker

As for the largest male role, a character known only as The Translator—who acts as a narrator and translator for the audience, and eventually a literal translator for Julie towards the trial’s end—I’m not completely sure how King wants us to feel about him, especially given his own admissions of how he doesn’t always strictly adhere to the rules of his own profession. However, Fang Du’s incredibly engaging performance clearly makes him an audience favorite.

If there is one lesson though to be taken away from Golden Shield, it’s that we all need to let our armor down and be honest with one another, both in how we behave and what we say.

Golden Shield. Through June 12 at Manhattan Theatre Club-New York City Center Stage 1 (131 West 55th Street, between Sixth and Seventh Avenues). 

Photos: Julieta Cervantes