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Humor isn’t lost in translation for ‘Chinglish’s’ David Henry Hwang

David Henry Hwang’s new Broadway comedy, “Chinglish,” makes bright, mischievous sport of the language barrier that separates an American businessman from the Chinese authorities who hold the keys to a vast new market. The idea for the play was inspired by Hwang’s own visits to China, where he was forced to rely on translators. A few Mandarin courses in college along with some work with private tutors weren’t enough to exempt the playwright, a first-generation Chinese American, from the farcical limbo of being lost in translation.

“I’ve been going to China once or twice a year for the last five or six years,” says Hwang, speaking at a table at Hurley’s Saloon, a quick hop from the Longacre Theater, where the show is in previews. “It was mostly to talk about theater, because China became very interested in Broadway-style musicals. Since I happen to be the only nominally Chinese person who has written a Broadway show, I’d get called over for a lot of meetings. People had big projects and schemes, and none of it ever resulted in anything, except that I got to learn about what was going on over there.”

Hwang, whose eager smile twinges with the slightest hint of irony, admits that he really didn’t need to fly thousands of miles to confront this particular communication gap. “I have lots of relatives whose English ability was nominal to nonexistent,” he says. “I have always learned just to struggle with the … ‘I think she wants me to take her to the market, but I’m not sure.’”

But clearly these junkets to his ancestral homeland were worth the jet lag. They inspired not just his first Broadway play since “Golden Child” in 1998 but arguably his best one since “M. Butterfly,” the 1988 Tony winner that catapulted Hwang into the national spotlight.

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“When I started writing about Chinese Americans at the start of my career, I think the audience was interested in the immigrant story and, if anything, the appeal was that it was exotic,” Hwang reflects with amiable precision. “We never thought that China would become cool or that it would end up as we are now looking at China as the world’s largest economy in 20 years or less. I guess I lucked out because this was always my subject matter, but it has started to loom larger in the American consciousness.”

Certainly, the play’s topicality helped put it on the fast track to Broadway. After premiering in June at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre under the direction of Leigh Silverman, “Chinglish” became that rare thing: A new American play that big-shot producers couldn’t resist. (Silverman, who staged Hwang’s last play, “Yellow Face,” at the Mark Taper Forum and the New York Public Theater, guides the Broadway production at a vivacious clip as it wittily leaps between English and Mandarin dialogue and surtitles.)

“This show has gone to Broadway incredibly quickly,” says Hwang. “It’s a combination of producers feeling that it’s a very relevant subject and that it’s a comedy.”

A comedy of ideas, to be exact. Hwang takes inspiration from such writers as Bertolt Brecht, George Bernard Shaw and Tom Stoppard, who employ humor in divergent ways to tackle societal problems and paradoxes. The brisk engagement of contemporary concerns lends “Chinglish” the feeling of an English play — think David Hare with a sportive Caryl Churchill streak — but Hwang is quick to assert that he’s very much an American playwright, influenced as much by Sam Shepard’s interrogations of identity as by the political movement that created multiculturalism.

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“Chinglish” follows the fumbling exploits of Daniel (Gary Wilmes), a disgraced Enron executive looking for redemption by resurrecting his family’s Ohio-based sign manufacturing business through lucrative Chinese contracts. Just when it seems as though all hope is lost, he tumbles into an adulterous relationship with Xi Yan (a fierce Jennifer Lim), the formidable vice minister of culture, who becomes an unexpected ally. Or does she? As with “M Butterfly,” the characters, major and minor, are never simply who they appear to be. Identity is a riddle, made more confounding by cultural differences that are larger than the meanings of untranslatable words.

The play shuffles between public and private realms, exploring the mistakes that happen when assumptions are made about common values. There are as many hilarious mix-ups over vocabulary as there are over points of view. But perhaps the biggest guffaws come when characters grope to understand the changing place of their countries in the new world order, as when Daniel, in utter frustration at Xi’s refusal to see her dominant position, loudly insists, “China — strong! America — weak!”

“Saying this out loud and making a joke about it seems a very cathartic experience for the audience,” Hwang says.

As he speaks these words, the sound of police sirens outside are getting louder and louder. Apparently Occupy Wall Street is holding a late-afternoon demonstration in Times Square. This movement, born out of a frustration with the inequities of unchecked capitalism, doesn’t seem immaterial to Hwang’s point about our need to confront the radically changing economic landscape.

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During the course of his lifetime, Hwang says he’s witnessed two huge geopolitical shifts. The first is that “the image of China has changed 180 degrees.” The other is that “the world embrace of capitalism has become much more monolithic.” Mao’s “masses” are known today as “consumers,” Daniel points out early on — a line that succinctly expresses for Hwang the “shift not just in China but to some extent the whole world.”

The troubling aspects of this are supremely evident to him as a playwright. “Commercial theater is certainly healthier than it was when I started out in the ‘80s,” he says. “Broadway is booming. It’s more musicals than straight plays, but the commercial theater is doing very well. The downside is that the commercial theater now pulls the cart for the entire field in a way that it didn’t 20 or 30 years ago, which also reflects the larger current in the culture that says things that don’t make money aren’t worth anything. And that is not healthy. I believe in the commercial theater, but I also believe that there has to be a balanced ecology and that we have to have as much respect for work that was never intended to make money and never will.”

Achieving that balanced ecology has been something that Hwang has been actively pursuing in his own life. Between “Golden Child” and “Yellow Face,” he took about 10 years off from writing his own plays to concentrate on musicals such as “Aida,” “Tarzan” and a revised version of “Flower Drum Song.” He also moonlights regularly in opera, writing libretti for Philip Glass and other composers.

“I don’t feel compelled to write a play if I really don’t have something to explore,” he says. “And I like coming in as a craftsperson and trying to realize someone else’s vision. In some sense ‘Flower Drum Song’ was a personal project, but the Disney musicals were just really fun to do. And they provided me with a kind of economic security that allowed me to go back to writing plays.”

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For Hwang, the theater is an opportunity to look at the world and process how he feels about it. He says he needs to be able to access the inner lives of all his characters to write them well but that he’s mindful of the way that characters’ own view of their inner lives can be quite different. Western drama has fetishized the question of “Who am I?” since Oedipus went on his tragic quest to find the answer, but the assumptions that underlie subjective identity are hardly universal.

To illustrate his point, he turns to the issue of romantic love in the play. “Americans are more likely to feel that romantic love is an important element in the foundation of marriage,” he says. “While not just Chinese but people in old-world cultures in general view marriage as an institution, with the understanding that romantic love fades.”

The tendency to project one’s own values onto another culture is the common bungle. Which is one reason he chose to open the play in Chicago rather than in California, where his work often starts out, to see whether it would find a welcome reception in the heartland.

“The West Coast is more naturally inclined toward works that have to do with Asians and Asian Americans,” says Hwang, a Los Angeles native whose father, Henry Y. Hwang, founded the first federally chartered Chinese American bank. (Although Hwang, 54, lives in New York with his wife and two children, his mother still lives in San Marino, and his Southern California roots are deep.)

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Hwang admits that in writing a U.S.-China story he has a crucial advantage: “Going back to a root culture as a Chinese American, I found that there are things that you understand without knowing how you know them. I can really identify with both Daniel’s and Xi’s ideas of marriage. They both make sense to me.”

Recapping Daniel’s journey, Hwang says, “The ability to understand your place in another culture, to alter your perspective and to change your point of view play a huge role in being able to evolve and redefine yourself.” These qualities, indispensable to nations navigating their way through rocky shoals, are also what make Hwang such an invaluable playwright to have around at this topsy-turvy juncture of world history.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com


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