When Ed Gryska and other members of the Salt Lake Acting Company chose David Henry Hwang's "M. Butterfly" to open the 1990 season, they likely had no idea they'd be making a political statement.

But the recent hubbub over the National Endowment for the Arts, censorship, government control and other issues makes "M. Butterfly" more than just another award-winning play by an award-winning company. Posted to the railing just outside the theater door at SLAC you'll find what amounts to an artists' Declaration of Independence: "M. Butterfly contains adult material and language and discreet nudity," the sign reads.Yes, it does.

Yet "M. Butterfly" becomes the ultimate challenge to the NEA naysayers; it is a play that contains all the elements that "pro-censorship" forces dislike, but a play that is - to its core - a work of deep humanity and sophisticated art.

"M. Butterfly" challenges biases, it does not confirm them.

The play is basically the confessions of Rene Gallimard, a French diplomat who has been sentenced to prison. As Gallimard rolls out the thread of his narrative, from time to time the playwright strings on a few beads and baubles - little scenes and episodes from Gallimard's past that are acted out as "flashbacks" by the SLAC cast.

If you have read the advance notices, you know that "M. Butterfly" is a true story, the story of Gallimard's life in China. There - amazing as it sounds - he falls in love with a Chinese woman and carries on a relationship with her for many years, never tipping to the fact the woman is really a man in women's clothes.

If that sounds preposterous, the job of Hwang and the Salt Lake Acting Company is to make it all seem plausible.

Whatever you think about the premise, however, it's a sure bet the original "real life" relationship had few of the textures, twists, subtleties and ironies of David Henry Hwang's play.

Playing Gallimard, the diplomat, Alan Echeverria works very hard here, offering us a slightly off-center, quirky portrayal that leads us to believe that - given the right time and place - Gallimard would probably be capable of believing anything.

Jusak Bernhard, the only Equity actor in the cast, has been flown in to play the two-faced Song Liling, Gallimard's mistress.

Much like Mamet's "A Life in the Theater" and Schaffer's "Sleuth," "M. Butterfly" depends entirely on the chemistry generated between the two male leads. Any lack of empathy or connection between them could quickly short-circuit the tension and drain the power from the work.

Luckily, Echeverria and Bernhard are able to play off each other and build the drama to fever pitch.

There are several other performances that help to shore up the leads. I single out two: Steve McQuinn, who portrays an arch, French chief diplomat with unnerving authenticity, and Rhonda Lee, an Oriental ballerina whose rendition of choreographer Jiang Qi's "Chinese Opera Dance" single-handedly convinces theatergoers that - for two hours - they're indeed in China.

Problems? A few opening night gaffes - characters referring to other characters by the wrong names, a couple of false starts in the dialogue.

Ed Gryska's direction is sound, inventive, fluid, though at times a bit precious.

Scenery, props and lights are simple and non-intrusive.

As the run progresses, things will tighten up. And, in the end, SLAC will have mounted a show that challenges those who challenge the NEA.

And the punch they throw is a real haymaker - an honest, heartfelt, superb work of art.