Most plays strive for clarity. David Henry Hwang's latest, "Chinglish," does the opposite.
The playwright behind "M. Butterfly" has returned to Broadway with the fine Sino-American comedy, a work that explores the space between words and meaning. It opened Thursday at the Longacre Theatre.
Hwang has built a bilingual farce about mistranslation that explores the cultural differences between China and America using two languages, and then layered a love story on top of it to illustrate the divide. This is fresh, energetic and unlike anything else on Broadway.
Director Leigh Silverman has somehow juggled all this in addition to surtitles and a kinetic, virtually cinematic set. The result is a thoughtful, funny and poignant piece in which, miraculously, nothing gets lost in translation.
The seven-character play, which debuted at Chicago's Goodman Theatre this summer, is about a good-natured American businessman in China who finds himself lost in a complex cultural system. Hwang doesn't come to a feel-good, Kumbaya conclusion in which both sides hug and laugh. He's suggesting something darker: that the gap separating people from the U.S. and China may never be closed.
Gary Wilmes stars as the sweet but innocent Daniel, the head of an Ohio-based sign-making business that has suffered financially. He goes to the Chinese city of Guiyang to escape his past and secure lucrative Chinese contracts by making impeccable signs.
Speaking no Mandarin, Daniel comes to rely on Peter, an Englishman (a solid Stephen Pucci) who is hoping to reinvent himself as a business consultant after spending years as a teacher in China. But his personality keeps getting in his way, even though he knows better. His character arc is ultimately not convincing, but his fish-out-of-water tale is a good addition to the story.
Daniel's purpose — to make money from bridging the Sino-American gap armed with linguistic exactness — allows Hwang to have fun with mangled translations. As part of his sales pitch, Daniel points out that signs for "Handicapped Restroom" have become "Toilet for Deformed Man" in China. Hwang also riffs off the fragmentary way Mandarin and English are translated by each side. "My hands are tied," one Chinese official complains, which is translated in English as "He is in bondage." The English translations of Mandarin are subtlety projected onto the set, allowing the audience access to the real meanings.
Things get even more complicated when Daniel falls for Xi Yan (an astonishing Jennifer Lim), who appears at first as a chilly bureaucrat but softens into a love interest. Her motives, as those of most of the characters on either side of the divide, remain unclear until the end.
Hwang uses this strained love story to compare different conceptions of love, marriage and respect. So often, both sides struggle for words to explain themselves, yet the playwright has his actors find other ways to communicate — through gestures, Tarzan English ("China — strong! America — weak!" says Daniel at one point to his lover), or facial expressions. Without a shared language, they still end up in a very human space.
Hwang has written fully fleshed out characters and none more so than Lim's Xi, an auspicious Broadway debut. Starting from a cartoonish sharp-tongued caricature and then slowly blooming with complexity, Lim shows Xi as lustful, funny, angry and guilty. We might want her love affair with Daniel to transcend culture, but Hwang won't take any easy ways out.
One of the biggest pleasures of the play is David Korins' set, which seems to reveal new fantastically realized spaces — hotel bedrooms, marble-heavy lobbies and offices — every few minutes. Korins has appropriately created a sort of Chinese puzzle where rooms open on themselves, spin in and out and unfold.
It is all sometimes disorientating — perfectly in tune with the play. There are even a few thrilling moments when an actor runs onto a set as it races across the stage and another is fast appearing like an accordion, making the performer look as if he's in a movie. Music designer Darron L. West's use of loud contemporary Chinese pop music between scenes adds a familiar unfamiliarity.
Credit Hwang — one of the only Americans exploring the Chinese-American experience — with never romanticizing China, and for suggesting that some cultural differences are just insurmountable. China is on the rise, after all, and it's time we got used to being considered inscrutable.
"Nowadays, to be successful, you have to understand your place in their picture. Just be aware that you may not — well, I can almost assure you that you will not — get everything you want," Daniel warns us. "And that may just have to be enough."
If miscommunication is comedy gold, David Henry Hwang has set his new Broadway show, “Chinglish,” in a veritable mine. Though he doesn’t tap the vein to its full potential, there are still plenty of laughs in this tale of international crossed signals.
Daniel Cavanaugh (Gary Wilmes) runs his small family firm, Ohio Signage, and has come to Guiyang, China, to land some contracts.
Daniel’s sales pitch is simple: His signs won’t be marred by awkward English translations, like “Deformed Man’s Toilet” on the door of a restroom for the handicapped.
His guide through alien customs and rules is the bilingual Peter (Stephen Pucci), an English teacher and self-proclaimed consultant who’s been in China so long, he sings Beijing Opera numbers the way others launch into show tunes. Our hapless businessman certainly needs all the help he can get.
Daniel’s biggest challenge is to convince a Guiyang minister, Cai Guoliang (Larry Lei Zhang), and his second, Xi Yan (a deliciously stern Jennifer Lim), that he can deliver good signs for their new cultural center.
Before long, he’s unwittingly dragged into a local turf war.
Hwang (“M. Butterfly,” “Yellow Face”) milks many jokes from the enthusiastic yet ineffectual interpreters, who are so literal, they’re wrong -- the results, translated from the Chinese, are projected on a back wall.
When Daniel fondly says that Smith & Wollensky “is like my second home,” it somehow becomes “a steak restaurant, where he sometimes lives.”
But this pales compared with what happens after Daniel decides to explore Chinese-American relationships of a more intimate nature. The results only underline his naivete: Some of his problems derive not from mistranslations, but from outright manipulation.
Under Leigh Silverman’s direction, the cast craftily exploits every comic opportunity, and smoothly inhabits David Korins’ clever, ever-moving set -- the business hotel is brilliantly bland.
The weakest link here is the lead. Wilmes sticks to a single note of befuddled candor, and delivers all his lines as if afflicted with mild stomach pain. Not for one second do we believe a doofus like Daniel used to be a senior manager at Enron.
That company actually turns out to set up the show’s single funniest scene, which neatly exposes China’s fascination with big-time American business -- and the deep misunderstandings between the two countries. As a lesson in geopolitics, it sure beats reading The Economist.
Even though much of the dialogue is in Mandarin, non-Chinese speakers should have no difficulty interpreting “Chinglish,” the sporadically funny new play by David Henry Hwang, which opened on Thursday night at the Longacre Theater. That’s not just because of the helpful supertitles — largely translations of mistranslations, in which English is merrily mutilated, and the principal source of this production’s mirth. Mr. Hwang’s comedy, about a bewildered American businessman hoping to make his fortune in capitalist China, is laid out with the frame-by-frame exactness of a comic strip.
Such graphic clarity can be an asset in a play that tries to measure the murky distance between two mutually uncomprehending societies. But what makes “Chinglish” easy to follow is also what makes it hard to embrace with enthusiasm. It’s so conscientious in leading us through the maze of cultural confusion at its center — with “you are here” signs at every new twist in the labyrinth — that we’re never allowed to feel lost ourselves.
Which means that we never feel what the characters onstage are feeling. While we laugh at their linguistic blunders, the empathy they inspire is only abstract. Despite the likable people playing them, the inhabitants of “Chinglish” are about as personally involving as the brightly colored, illustrative figures in a PowerPoint presentation.
It is appropriate that “Chingish,” directed by Leigh Silverman, should begin with a lecture — with slides, of course. Daniel Cavanaugh (Gary Wilmes), the head of a company that makes signs (a suitably symbolic profession), is speaking to the Commerce League of Ohio about doing business in China. We can imagine that his Ohio audience would laugh exactly as the Longacre one does at the images that fill a screen. They are mostly pictures of signs giving examples of mistranslations into English from Mandarin. “Take notice of safe: the slippery are very crafty” reads the first one. And this distortion of the warning “slippery slopes ahead” might well be an epigraph for Daniel’s experiences in the city of Guiyang, where he had arrived three years earlier, knowing next to nothing about what to expect.
This retrospective framework, of a not-too-bright Westerner looking back in wonder at his own naïveté as a stranger in a strange land, recalls another play by Mr. Hwang, the one that won a Tony Award and made him internationally famous. That’s “M. Butterfly,” the 1988 drama about a French diplomat who falls in love with a beautiful, cryptic Chinese woman who is — shall we say? — not what she appears.
A game of deception, orchestrated by another beautiful woman (who in this case really is a woman), shapes the plot of “Chinglish” too. And once again Mr. Hwang uses one man’s callowness to probe the elusive and illusory nature of love. The object of desire in this case is Xi Yan (Jennifer Lim), a vice minister of culture who is transformed from Daniel’s adversary into his ally, as he tries to sell his proposal for providing the signs for the city’s new cultural center.
Unlike “M. Butterfly” “Chinglish” is a comedy. The stakes are smaller, and people are less likely to be grievously wounded. But that shouldn’t mean we don’t care about what happens to them. Mr. Hwang, whose other works on similar themes include “Golden Child” and “Yellow Face,” is an intelligent craftsman (though there are a few prosaic gaps in logic), and his characters have been adroitly positioned both to serve the plot and to reflect the play’s central subjects.
Those characters include Daniel’s “business consultant,” Peter Timms (Stephen Pucci) — a slightly shabby British expatriate and Sinophile who brings to mind a lesser Graham Greene character — and Minister Cai Guoliang (Larry Lei Zhang), Xi’s boss, who is plagued by an unseen wife of great ambitions and many relatives. Like Daniel and Xi, they are all operating on several dissembling levels.
But they rarely assume much emotional depth. They precisely — and sometimes charmingly — embody what they are meant to stand for, yet for me they remained quick-stroke portraits of the kind common to satiric sketch comedy. Mr. Wilmes, who was terrific as Tom Buchanan in “Gatz” last season, initially strikes the right credible note of all-American credulousness but fails to build on it. Only the strident and sensual Ms. Lim, who has the most fully written part, hints at a real complexity.
The audience with which I saw the show seemed happiest when it was privy to the misinterpretations of the hapless interpreters (played by Angela Lin and Johnny Wu) used in business meetings. Some of these are pretty delicious and deflate the pomposity of business spiels. When Daniel says to Minister Cai, “Here’s why we’re worth the money,” it is rendered by the translator in Mandarin (and for us retranslated into English supertitles) as, “He will explain why he spends money so recklessly.”
But Mr. Hwang means for these instances of botched translation to be stepping stones that take us into broader considerations of clashing cultural sensibilities, particularly as acted out in the relationship between Daniel and Xi. When this American man and Chinese woman exchange passionate words in his hotel room, with neither knowing what the other is saying, we are piquantly reminded that what we call love is sometimes nothing more than two people’s convenient misreading of each other. But, as in most of “Chinglish,” the point registers only intellectually, which means numbly.
Half a century ago Eugene Ionesco mined the ridiculousness of the non sequiturs in an English-for-foreigners program for the dialogue of his absurdist masterpiece “The Bald Soprano.” And there are moments when “Chinglish” seems ready to take off into a similar stratosphere of inanity, in which misused words achieve their own giddy logic and rhythms. (It comes closest to achieving that fine madness in a second-act sequence in which Daniel’s association with a famous financial scandal becomes a selling point to his potential Chinese partners.)
Yet while David Korins’s nifty revolving set is meant, I think, to summon the whirligig dizziness of farce, “Chinglish” only rarely achieves the sort of momentum that sends audiences into the ether. Even when its characters are floating helplessly on the wings of unhinged words, this play feels too solidly grounded for its own good.
"Ch'inglish," by David Henry Hwang, is a lightweight comedy-of-misunderstanding about an American businessman trying to clinch a contract in China. He speaks no Mandarin and knows nothing about the culture. The Chinese characters understand selective snatches of English and believe they know more about Americans than they do.
The laughs -- OK, the mild chuckles -- come from ludicrous mistranslations by the Chinese and even more clueless misinterpretations of Chinese behavior by the American. When the Chinese talk among themselves or think out loud, the English appears in supertitles on the back wall.
If this sounds like a letdown, you're onto something. Yes, the fish-out-of-water crises have resonance as we process seismic power shifts in the world economy. Sure, the wrongheadedness of the miscommunication ("I love you" comes out "dirty sea maid") contains the lovely ridiculousness of truth.
But the play, which arrives on Broadway after a celebrated premiere in Chicago, is thematically smaller than we anticipate from the form-busting playwright of the 1988 Tony-winning "M Butterfly" and the 2008 Pulitzer finalist "Yellow Face." The lost-in-translation humor soon feels like a one-joke collection we could find in a novelty book.
On the other hand, the actors -- all but one bilingual -- are first-rate. The production, directed by Leigh Silverman ("Well") zips along with a confident commercial sheen, its turntable sets by David Korins moving us from Chinese restaurant to offices to the lobby of a luxe hotel to, fatefully, a room upstairs.
Gary Wilmes toys deftly with both the duplicity and the openhearted naiveté of Daniel, the Cleveland businessman who wants to sell signage for a cultural center in a growing Chinese city. Jennifer Lim is wonderful as the strict-seeming Vice-Minister of Culture, a supremely competent woman with her own agenda and, we soon learn, black push-up bra and bikini panties under her beyond-the-Cultural Revolution suit (designed by Anita Yavich.)
The plot, complete with a love affair of mixed-signal mastery, is told as Daniel's flashback while preparing American salespeople to meet Mao's former masses -- "or as we call them today, consumers." Daniel's Western translator (Stephen Pucci) tells him that the Chinese love big gamblers. A no-star English/Mandarin comedy on Broadway is a gamble, too. Too bad Hwang didn't raise the stakes.