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Each person is a mystery in East West Players' lively 'Chinglish'

Each person is a mystery in East West Players' lively 'Chinglish'
Kara Wang, as the vice minister of culture in a Chinese backwater, drops some unexpected information on an Ohio businessman played by Matthew Jaeger in East West Players' production of "Chinglish." (Michael Lamont)

"Use at your own risk," the local vice minister of culture says enigmatically to an Ohio businessman seeking a contract in China.

The female official is referring to the information she's just leaked, but in the larger context of David Henry Hwang's "Chinglish," she's also issuing a warning about the very nature of communication. What one person says might be full of hidden meanings and coded desires, and what another person hears could be entirely different from what was intended.

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East West Players is presenting the Los Angeles premiere of Hwang's deliriously funny, deliciously mysterious play. Crisp in every detail, the production is a highlight of the company's 50th season.

Hwang's story keeps viewers off-balance. At the businessman's initial meeting with local officials, the chief minister is extravagantly talkative, but it's the stillness in the room that keeps grabbing our attention. Kara Wang as the vice minister sits to the side, straight-backed, still, aloof. She doesn't say much, and what she does say is icy.

Just who is the power player here?

Matthew Jaeger as the businessman puts up a brave front, but he's at sea. He has traveled to this Chinese backwater to seek a contract to make signs for a new performing arts center. The vice minister surprises him when she insists on a private meeting and converses in broken yet carefully chosen English. She is much more open now, almost playful. And … did she just come on to him?

Meanwhile, we begin to wonder whether the businessman is everything he appears to be. He's affable, open-faced, athletic but perhaps too wholesome to be true.

Director Jeff Liu wonderfully sets up the laugh-out-loud humor while maintaining a low boil of unease as one after another of the characters coughs up a secret. His cast is well-nigh perfect, including Jeff Locker as the gregarious Brit whom the businessman engages as translator/consultant and Ben Wang as the voluble chief minister.

This production surpasses the South Coast Repertory-Berkeley Repertory production – itself no slouch – that played in Costa Mesa in early 2013. It's taken a long time for this 2011 play to reach L.A., but thank goodness it got here in such excellent shape. (The Chinese-screen set, the costumes and lights are wonderful too, and East West has taken particular care with the Mandarin; each of its speakers was either born in China or immersed in the language.)

Much of the humor involves bad translations. For the businessman, that's complicated by differences in culture, temperament and ways of looking at the world (echoes of Hwang's "M. Butterfly"). The point: We can never entirely know what's going on in another person's mind, perhaps especially when a certain very powerful emotion is involved. Oooo. More enigma.

"Chinglish," East West Players, 120 Judge John Aiso St., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Oct. 11. $28-$38. www.eastwestplayers.org or (213) 625-7000. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.

You think there's nothing like a great night of theater? Me too. Follow me on Twitter @DarylHMiller.

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