A bona fide breakout role for 'Chinglish' star

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David Henry Hwang's smart and enormously witty "Chinglish" is one of the first major U.S. plays to address the rising economic power of China, as well as America's attempts to benefit from that new money. Currently in a world premiere at the Goodman Theatre, it has been an unequivocal hit for the theater, which has extended the run through July 31.

It doesn't get any more "now" than that play's premise. An American businessman from Cleveland arrives in China, hoping to land a contract. At the center of the negotiations is a sexy, fearsome, no-nonsense Chinese official who takes matters into her own carefully manicured hands, while indulging in a fizzy romantic dalliance with the American on the side.

Played with intellectual dexterity and a ripe sense of comedy by Hong Kong-born, New York-based actress Jennifer Lim (in her Chicago debut), she is the savviest of all the play's characters. Dressed in severe, figure-flattering suits and sky-high heels, she is the kind of woman who strides into business meetings ready to crush a few dumplings, in a manner of speaking. But alone in a hotel room with her American paramour, her true complexity and vulnerability are revealed as she is swept up in the fantasy and excitement of the affair.

It's the kind of role that can make a career, and it requires an actress with a unique set of skills and attributes — specifically: good looks, a fluency in Mandarin and a proficiency for comedy.

"I play older and tougher in this show," Lim, 32, said over lunch last week. "Friends who have come see the play are like, 'She's so not like you!' Because I'm sort of polite and nice and a product of my Chinese upbringing."

The play is truly bilingual — English surtitles show up whenever a character speaks Chinese — and the ensuing culture clashes and language barriers (on both sides of the divide) generate the bulk of the play's humor, which is fast-breaking and exceptionally well-crafted. In one of the many jokes early on, "We're a small family firm" is translated into Chinese as "His company is tiny and insignificant."

And now a Broadway is in the offing is in the works, based on the play's Chicago success. If all goes according to plan, producer Jeffrey Richards (the man behind many of Steppenwolf's recent Broadway transfers) will bring director Leigh Silverman's production of "Chinglish" to New York in the fall. No official casting decisions have been made, but the smart money has Lim going all the way with the show to Broadway — and possibly to a Tony nomination.

"It's a flashy, sexy, amazing part," said Silverman by phone from New York. "It's a difficult part, it's a passionate part, it's a complicated part, it's a funny part. It is a showy, showy part for her, and I think it's a tremendously exciting time for her."

In essence, this is Lim's coming out party as an actress. "I'm so excited to watch her in this moment," Silverman said, "because she doesn't really have a huge amount of theater credits and this is a really big deal for her."

Raised in Hong Kong until she was 18, Lim attended college at Bristol University in England, before heading stateside, where she earned her MFA in acting from the Yale School of Drama in 2004.

But it took her five years after graduation to qualify for her green card, as required by Actors Equity.

"You have to be able to prove that your body of work is at a certain international level. And even though I was from Hong Kong and had done stuff in England, it wasn't enough. So I couldn't really do any theater in the U.S."

She moved to New York (where she still lives) and did "a lot of downtown, sort of off-the-map non-union stuff, which was a lot of fun." She was also cast in productions that toured extensively through Europe and she performed in Shanghai for two months doing a Chinese production of "Hamlet" before she had a sizable body of work to finally obtain a green card in 2009. Her role in "Chinglish" is the biggest part she's landed in her career.

But to hear her speak English, you would never guess she needed a green card because she sounds positively American. Throughout the years her accent has morphed, she said, depending on where she lives. In Hong Kong she spoke English with a mid-Atlantic accent. At college, the accent became more British. Now, 10 years after her arrival in the U.S., her accent is as American as they get.

Ironically, in the play she must speak English with a Chinese accent, all staccato syllables and punchy rhythms. It's enough to scramble a person's brain. Except: "I tend to pick up accents really fast," she said.

As for the play's specific East-meets-West dynamic, Lim brings a certain amount of real world bona fides to the table, which became an asset to Hwang as he and director Silverman and translator Candace Chong (who is also from Hong Kong) developed the script.

"The fact that Jen grew up in Hong Kong gives her a base of experience to draw on," Hwang said by phone from Brooklyn, where he lives. "She really kind of understands what it means to be Chinese, as opposed to a Chinese-American" — such as Hwang, who was born in Los Angeles.

"But then she really understands what it is to be a Westerner, too. So she's completely bicultural and that turns out to be a big help. When you meet her, she could very well be an American who grew up in New York or something. But because she needs to be playing a character who is from China and has lived almost all her life in China, she understands the cultural characteristics and the mannerisms that would characterize someone from China."

As for Hwang's portrayal of modern-day China, Lim called it "spot on," saying he captured all the right nuances.

"Even the Chinglish that he writes — the English that my character speaks — when I read it I was like, 'Oh, I understand exactly what she's saying.' It was one thing to read it, but to be in a room and speak broken English and then hearing what that sounds like? The first time we read it out loud, everybody was cracking up."

The pool of bilingual Asian actors in the U.S. is relatively small, particularly those with the skills and talent to shoulder the demands of a major new play. Casting the Goodman production was an enormous challenge.

"David sort of thought, 'Oh, I didn't think it was going to be that hard,'" said Silverman, who stressed: "It was pretty hard." Neither she nor Hwang knew of Lim, who heard through a Facebook friend that the show's creators were looking for actors who could speak Mandarin fluently.

"She did the very first table reading when there was only a first act, and we were sitting around a table using PowerPoint to try to simulate the surtitles," said Hwang. "We loved her then and she's been with the show ever since. She has a kind of sophistication, I suppose, that felt right for the part. And also she can kind of get down and dirty when she's angry and she can obviously be very attractive. She's just got the whole package of everything that the part needs."

The role is a marked departure from how Chinese women have been typically portrayed in American plays, TV and film. "I was writing an actual Chinese woman rather than someone who was sort of living up to a Western fantasy of Asian women," said Hwang. "As someone who represents the new China and the particular dynamic in this play, she's going to be a different kind of woman than the way the West has always perceived Asian women."

Lim sees the character as part of "a new generation of movers-and-shakers," which she contrasted with her own traditional and conservative upbringing. And yet, according to Silverman, Lim is "masterful at the comedy and the sexuality, the sensuality and the passion, and the intelligence that is required for that part."

Or as Hwang put it: "I just think it's interesting and fortuitous and kind of magical that the first actor who ever read this part is the actor who's doing this show. That doesn't happen that often."

nmetz@tribune.com

Twitter @NinaMetzNews

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