Bridging the communication gap is, quite possibly, the primary obstacle facing Westerners as they attempt to establish relationships with the Chinese or, for that matter, any foreign entity. And this applies both to the boardroom and the bedroom.
Playwright David Henry Hwang ("M. Butterfly") illustrates this observation with a flourish of hilarity in his 2011 play "Chinglish," now on stage at South Coast Repertory. It's a biting comedy with all the punch lines printed in supertitles above the stage.
What we say and how it is understood are the key ingredients in Hwang's intriguing tale of American businessman Daniel Cavanaugh attempting to sell the Chinese on his product — signage that would more accurately convey the meaning of, say, "handicapped restroom," which now translates, in Chinglish, to "deformed man's toilet."
This businessman — once an executive at the disgraced company Enron — strives mightily to master the art of "guanxi," establishing a personal relationship with the Chinese before any deal may be struck. Trouble is, Daniel establishes an extremely personal relationship with the strikingly beautiful Vice Minister Xi Yan — even though both are married.
His romanticism and her pragmatism come into conflict as much as their language differences. When she says "I love you," he attempts to reply in Chinese, but his words come out as "my fifth aunt" or "dirty sea mud," even though they sound (to American ears) identical to hers.
Alex Moggridge delivers an engrossing performance as the perplexed American, who requires the services of a British translator (Brian Nishii) to make his words understood by the Chinese. Nishii's character proves more of a hindrance than a help with his boorish manner and combustible nature.
As Xi Yan, the svelte government official and object of Daniel's affection, Michelle Krusiec radiates equal portions of beauty and bureaucracy. Speaking both in English and Chinese, and appearing frustrated in both tongues, Krusiec establishes a captivating character in a richly layered performance.
Raymond Ma is quite effective as the senior minister whose activities have placed him in the cross hairs of the Communist Party. Other performers furnishing local color are Vivian Chiu, Celeste Den and Austin Ku, who each assume a number of background characters.
Daniel's once-secretive Enron affiliation comes in for some special attention late in the play as his Chinese hosts clamor for more details on the American scandal. It's both one of the funniest moments in the show and a turning point in the story.
Director Leigh Silverman, who also staged the Broadway production of "Chinglish," skillfully weaves his actors through the often-delicate situations. The setting by David Korins involves many staging areas which appear to glide in and out of the spotlight on their own volition.
"Chinglish" is one of the most original, and immensely satisfying, plays to come down the pike from Broadway in some time. It's an exceptionally rich theatergoing experience at South Coast Repertory.
TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Daily Pilot.
If You Go
Where: South Coast Repertory, Segerstrom Stage, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: 7:30 p.m. Sundays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays until Feb. 24
Cost: $20 to $70