There’s a frisson of recognition that occurs when great art reflects important truths, but fantasy offers its own superficial pleasures. In between is a space where many of today’s playwrights operate: they have a lot of social commentary to offer about a world of their imagining. In other words, they cheat. Just as conspiracy theorists tend to band together, critics tend to champion work that reinforces their own self-deluding worldview. The ordinary citizen equipped with basic facts scratches his head and wonders why only he sees the obvious.

A case in point is M. Butterfly (at the Cort Theatre), the play by David Henry Hwang that created a sensation upon its Broadway debut in 1988 and went on to capture the Tony award for Best Play. In a revival directed by Julie Taymor, Clive Owen plays Rene Gallimard, a French diplomat based on a real person who,...


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