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California Literary Review

Theater Review: Chinglish


Theater Review: Chinglish

Only whipsmart playwright David Henry Hwang could have written Chinglish, the new biting comedy of manners that depicts the gulf between Chinese and American cultures through the misadventures of language in translation.

Theater poster: Chinglish


Written by David Henry Hwang
Directed by Leigh Silverman

Location: Longacre Theatre, 220 W. 48th St., New York, NY

Set Designer: David Korins, Lighting: Brian MacDevitt, Costumes: Anita Yavich, Sound Design: Darron L. West, Casting: Telsey + Company

Starring Jennifer Lim, Angela Lin, Christine Lin, Stephen Pucci, Gary Wilmes, Johnny Wu, Larry Lei Zhang

CLR [rating:3.5]

Still: Chinglish

Jennifer Lim and Gary Wilmes star in Chinglish.
Photo by Michael McCabe.

The Comic Mishaps of a Mispronounced Dipthong

Only whipsmart playwright David Henry Hwang could have written Chinglish, the new biting comedy of manners that depicts the gulf between Chinese and American cultures through the misadventures of language in translation. Hwang, a Tony winner and author of M. Butterfly, FOB and Yellowface, among others, shapes his crackling dialogue from the space between Mandarin and English, as only one who is intimate with both can, to reveal that language confuses the truth as much as it communicates it.

Playwright David Henry Hwang discusses Chinglish.

It is not the most original revelation, and one that you might expect from a play about a businessman from Cleveland who travels to Guiyang, China to take advantage of the expanding economy without knowing anything about the language or the people. But that doesn’t stop this play, that transferred to Broadway from Chicago’s Goodman Theater, from delivering a hilarious social commentary about the foibles encountered by the ambitious in the pursuit of money and career advancement.

Directed by Leigh Silverman, Chinglish is delivered half in Mandarin and half in English, with supertitles projected in cleverly placed spots on David Korins’ mammoth, revolving set. The dialogue crafted by Hwang flows with such an electricity, you feel as though you are fluent in both, which puts you in a unique position as an audience member. You see both sides at once, and can witness the misunderstandings from a god-like vantage point, reveling in the fact that you know more than the characters. The laughs come easily at the characters’ expense but Hwang’s deftly constructed plot ultimately reveals that it is the characters who know more. As shifting agendas are exposed, the audience is left to confront not only our cultural assumptions about our Eastern counterparts, but our definitions of success and happiness.

Daniel Cavanaugh, played by Gary Wilmes, embarks on a trip to China’s interior in Guiyang, to land an account making signs for its new Cultural Center. He enlists the help of “consultant” Peter Timms, played by Stephen Pucci, who is conversant in the Chinese language and customs. Timms arranges a meeting with Party official, Minister Cai Guoliang, played with comic gusto by Larry Lei Zhang. Cavanaugh bases his sales pitch on the poor English translations of signs in China, claiming that his company will do better, a point the Vice Minister Yan considers to be a haughty example of American hubris. When Minister Cai seems optimistic, Cavanaugh is hopeful that he will soon make the deal. Vice Minister Xi Yan, played by the fantastic and versatile Jennifer Lim, meets with Cavanaugh, insisting on conversing without interpreters, and confuses the matter by telling him that the Minister will not accept his proposal but she will help him instead. It is in this scene that the force of the comedy takes flight, where we see the map of their misunderstanding written in supertitles and screwed up faces.

Lim, with her broadly comic and yet remarkably introspective performance, carries the play through its twists and turns with superb supporting performances by Johnny Wu and Angela Lin. Wu and Lin both play young translators and Party officials, both transforming so completely they are barely recognizable in their later roles. Larry Lei Zhang, who is the only main character who speaks completely in Chinese, also turns in a magnetic performance, able to communicate almost all of what he says through expressive gesticulation and spot-on timing. Unfortunately, Gary Wilmes wavers in his performance of Cavanaugh, the broken American businessman looking for redemption. Wilmes is likable enough, and has much to contend with playing a man who strains to be understood for an entire evening, but he falls into a repetition that he cannot break, causing the play to lag at times, especially at moments when it attempts the sentimental.

Jennifer Lim and Gary Wilmes in Chinglish.

Wilmes is not solely responsible for the drag on the play’s momentum that threatens interest so piqued in early scenes. Korin’s massive, realistic set that turns slowly with each location change, no matter the length of the scene played there, practically becomes the focal point of the entire production. Arm chairs and doors painfully make their way on tracks across the stage with such deathly inevitability, the scene is over before it has begun, because the furniture is now the star. Perhaps I am supposed to be impressed by its detail, or the fact that Lim can disappear within it, but the set encumbers the clip of Hwang’s crisp bi-lingual dialogue, the true technical wizardry on display to be admired.

Hwang is at his best when he captures the social motivations behind his characters’ speech and less so when depicting the unlikely love affair between Yan and Cavanaugh. The romantic scenes between star-crossed lovers seem better suited for a soap opera and seem disjointed from the rest of the play’s biting critique of opportunistic values. The play’s subplots that follow the posturing of “Teacher Peter” Timms and Minister Cai actually contain the subtler, more compelling, meditation on the choices and sacrifices people make in pursuit of success. As the play comes to a close, it is Peter’s character who poignantly touches an emotional chord as a man stuck between two worlds, belonging wholly to neither. This is a recurring theme in Hwang’s work, but is usually expressed by a Chinese American character. The reversal here, of a Westerner who is Chinese and not Chinese, shows up our own larger misunderstanding of the emerging superpower, and leaves us to wonder if in the face of their advancement whether we will have to re-evaluate who we actually are.

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