Words aren't the only thing that gets lost in translation in "Chinglish," David Henry Hwang's tangy cross-cultural comedy of ideas set in the Chinese city of Guiyang.
Manners and mores are equally susceptible to misinterpretation when an American businessman with a checkered past tries to redeem himself and his family's sign-making business by dog paddling into the "greatest pool of untapped consumers history has ever known."
The play, which had a modest run on Broadway last season and is now at South Coast Repertory in a tiptop co-production with Berkeley Repertory Theatre, was underappreciated in New York. Directed by Leigh Silverman, who staged the work on Broadway, "Chinglish" gleams with witty intelligence about the dizzying divide that separates the world's two economic superpowers.
Language is only the half of it. Hwang, whose plays include "M. Butterfly" and "Golden Child," is ever mindful of the underlying schism in values that makes communication between East and West so spectacularly fallible.
In the opening scene, Daniel Cavanaugh (Alex Moggridge) offers a humorous presentation to the Commerce League of Ohio on the way even simple signs in China can get bungled when rendered in English. "Slippery Slopes Ahead" becomes "To Take Notice of Safe: The Slippery are Very Crafty." Other examples are too profane to repeat. His advice to his fellow Midwesterners seeking to expand their global market share: "When doing business in China, always bring your own translator."
"Chinglish" proceeds to travel three years back in time to when Daniel, the quintessential naïve American abroad, first arrived in the provincial capital of Guiyang. Down on his luck and determined to rebuild not just his family's business but his professional self-worth, he engages a consultant who can open doors for him.
"It's almost a cliché now, but business in China is built on relationships," explains Peter (Brian Nishii), a British expat with the sketchy hauteur of a Graham Greene go-between.
For a healthy commission, Peter offers to set up a meeting between Daniel and Minister Cai (Raymond Ma). The minister owes Peter a favor for having pulled strings to get his blockheaded son into a British university, and Peter senses this is the moment to cash in.
Money motivates most business dealings, but Daniel soon discovers that matters are more complicated in the backdoor economy of China, where commerce and politics make strange bedfellows.
For Hwang, this isn't just a metaphor but a literal reality. "Chinglish" begins as a farce about translation but quickly turns into a comedy about the untranslatable nature of love.
The object of Daniel's affection is Xi Yan (Michelle Krusiec), the vice minister of culture. At first Xi is openly hostile to the idea of Daniel's company being awarded the contract to manufacture signs for the new arts center. But for reasons that are mysterious to Daniel, she becomes his secret ally and eventual bedmate.
Hwang weaves a tangled web, making it difficult for the characters to know exactly where they stand with one another. All motives here are ulterior — which isn't to say they're necessarily nefarious, but nothing is as it appears at first glance. For an American who believes his worldview is the universal truth, Chinese conduct turns out to be even more elusive than regional idioms.
"Chinglish" has an impressive thematic coherence, but there's some cumbersome gear-shifting between the play's two modes that slows down momentum. The language farce is deepened by the character-based comedy, but the flow of scenes can seem choppy, particularly around the drama's midpoint.
Fortunately, Silverman keeps the action moving at a nice clip. Her production is helped immeasurably by David Korins' rapid merry-go-round of sets. Jeff Sugg and Shawn Duan's projections are indispensable to a work that must continually translate between Mandarin Chinese and English. And Darron L. West's sound design gives the staging a merry hip-hop kick.
The ensemble manages to land the play's laughs without completely undermining its credibility — a tricky challenge. Inevitably, the funniest moments are when the translators allow themselves liberties with what has been spoken, often to the amazement of the speaker who is confounded by the knuckleball reply.
Krusiec's Xi makes a particularly sharp impression. She's at once seductive and terrorizing, a master manipulator of a system no outsider can possibly figure out. Exasperation suits Krusiec, who raises the comic ante with her character's hair-trigger frustration with Daniel's cluelessness.
Moggridge emphasizes Daniel's softer qualities. This is a character whose behavior (past and present) leaves much to be desired, but Moggridge coats everything in sympathy for a man who is down for the count. A touch more of selfishness in the portrayal wouldn't be amiss, but the protagonist stays in our good graces throughout.
Nishii's overblown accent turns Peter into a stage Brit at times, but the mix of arrogance and smarminess is just right. Ma's Minister Cai is utterly convincing as an official who's completely out of touch with everything but his own strategic interests.
The best part of "Chinglish" is that it doesn't settle for schematic conclusions. Hwang, as agile a thinker as he is a dramatist, recognizes that cultural differences only compound the puzzle that is another person. Yet fleeting connections can happen anywhere — preferably without too many words.
Where: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. (Call for exceptions.) Ends Feb. 24.
Contact: (714) 708-5555 or http://www.scr.org
Running time: Two hours
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