Review: Behind the 'Veil,' facts are negotiable

In Brooklyn, Xiao (Aaron Yoo) is describing to Mei (a terrific Karoline Xu) his favorite old film, “Veil Widow Conspiracy.” With a shift of scenery (the handsome set is by Yu-Hsuan Chen), suddenly that’s what we’re watching: a Hollywood murder mystery based on a true story.

Review: Behind the 'Veil,' facts are negotiable

The framing of disparate narratives is the consuming subject of this intriguing drama, directed by Aneesha Kudtarkar for the National Asian American Theater Company. With three storylines sprawling over two continents and more than a century, it considers the power of storytelling — whether in art or in calculated lies — to shape and bend people’s perceptions of what’s real.

In Brooklyn, Xiao (Aaron Yoo) is describing to Mei (a terrific Karoline Xu) his favorite old film, “Veil Widow Conspiracy.” With a shift of scenery (the handsome set is by Yu-Hsuan Chen), suddenly that’s what we’re watching: a Hollywood murder mystery based on a true story.

The movie is from the early 21st century, but it’s set in 1922 in Xinjiang, in northwest China, where the ruling general’s son-in-law has been found dead. Three men — the Commander (Edward Chin-Lyn), the Prince (James Seol) and the Deputy (David Shih) — have been summoned to compete for the hand of the young widow (Kimiye Corwin) by presenting her with the name of the killer.

The accusations the suitors make to this veiled figure, whose scarred face they are not permitted to see, don’t need to be based in fact. They merely need to be credible. With self-interest trumping integrity, everyone plays along.

When the action freezes and the filmmakers appear — portrayed by the same actors we’ve just watched in the movie scenes — the play shifts fully into gear. It is 2010 in Xinjiang, and this bunch of Americans is shooting on location. Under the constant watch of the Chinese government, they are at cross-purposes with their overseers, who abruptly object to the narrative in the script.

With the production threatened, what choice is there but to reframe the story?

Part of New York Theater Workshop’s Next Door at NYTW series, “[Veil Widow Conspiracy]” has an excellent cast, which also includes Bruce McKenzie as the movie’s cynical white-guy producer, exceptionally comfortable in his own arrogance.

It may take a while, though, to figure out that he’s the producer — or that the director (Chin-Lyn) is the director, and the designer ( Corwin) is the designer — since there’s nothing to identify these new characters. Simple projections would do the trick.

Kudtarkar beautifully handles the tonal shifts from one reality to another, but the scenes set in a grim future Brooklyn, which bookend the play, feel unnecessary. They’re also drab in comparison to the rest, which comes into focus as a grand social critique, juxtaposing cultural exchange with cultural appropriation, and insensitivity with coldblooded bigotry.

But mostly Dahlquist examines the widespread warping of truth — and the crumbling of trust that follows.

“Every frame is an exclusion,” one of the filmmakers observes. Always, outside it, is something we don’t see.

——

Additional Information:

‘[Veil Widow Conspiracy]’

Through July 6 at Fourth Street Theater, Manhattan; 212-460-5475, nytw.org. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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