Hwang's gently satiric and very funny comedy tweaks both the U.S. and Chinathe U.S. for its economic problems and resulting humility, China for an almost adolescent glee over its newly acquired economic power and influence over the mighty (and in this play, still revered) Americansand both for a certain provincialism that comes with their shared geo-political characteristics. The U.S. and the People's Republic of China are, after all, two huge and generally geographically isolated countries in which the average citizens are unlikely to have travelled abroad extensively or be fluent in any language beyond their native tongue. Though the two counties are becoming increasingly interdependent, they really know little about each other's ways.
The play concerns Daniel Gallagher (James Waterston), an American businessman from Cleveland and president of his 100-year family-owned sign company, who is seeking a contract to provide signs for a new cultural arts center in the mid-sized Chinese city of Guiyang. The earnest but socially inept Gallagher hires Peter (Stephen Pucci), an Australian expat living there, to consult and make the appropriate introductions. Peter explains to Daniel the concept of "Guanxi," the personal relationships and mutual back-scratching that influences business decisions in China. In the initial meeting Peter arranges for Daniel with Cai Guoliang, the Provincial Minister of the Arts (Larry Zhang); both sides stumble due to the inept work of the too-eager-to-please and too-embarrassed-to-admit-her-linguistic-limitations young translator (a delicious comic portrayal by Christine Lin). The losses of meaning through bad translationwhether from English to Mandarin or vice versaare shown through English supertitles, projected unobtrusively onto sections of the set. In spite of these misunderstandings, the shared sensibilities between Gallagher and the Chinese as residents of second-tier cities and the Minister's high regard for Chicago (sort of close to Cleveland) seem to suggest some possibilities. All appears to be lost when Peter learns that Minster Cai has promised the sign project to his sister-in-law, but the ambitious and amorous Vice-Minister (Jennifer Lim) has other ideas.
The play opens with a prologue set three years after the events of the play's main story. In it, Gallagher is delivering a very funny lecture on Chinglish, giving examples such as "handicapped toilet" translated as "deformed man end place." Once into the main story it takes Hwang a little too long to set up the characters and situations that drive the play's action. His opening scene is a statically staged meeting between Daniel and Peter in a local restaurant, followed by the hilarious if also woodenly blocked scene of the first meeting with the local officials. Hwang and director Leigh Silverman gain steam from there on in, though, and by the end of the 70-minute first act, we're clearly in the middle of an intricately plotted, wise and charmingly funny play.
Silverman's direction earns all of Hwang's laughs through honest and believable characterizations. Waterston leads the cast as the na´ve and overeager but likable Midwestern businessman, while Lim skillfully and gradually reveals the layers of Madame Xu beneath her party bureaucrat persona. Larry Zhang is charming as the sweet but ineffectual Minister Cai, while Stephen Pucci brings a Crocodile Dundee sensibility to his Australian expat Peter. Christine Lin, Angela Lin and Johnny Wu handle a variety of supporting roles that contribute to the evening's humor quite nicely as well.
The meticulous and clean production design includes David Korins' realistic sets of Gallagher's hotel and the ministry offices that change fluidly via dual turntables, and costumes of smart contemporary business attire designed by Anita Yavich.
If Hwang's most recent previous play, the 2007 Yellow Face (now being performed by Silk Road Theatre Project in conjunction with the Goodman), attempts to forge together too many ideas into a single play, Chinglish has just the right singularity of focus. Hwang clearly makes the case that cultural values and mores can differ between societies in ways we may not even imagine. Language is constructed to reflect community values, and the expectation that literal, direct counterparts of words can bring understanding to two very different cultures is unrealistic. Hwang gets into some of those differences, but it would be spoiling to reveal them all here. Chinglish is a rich yet accessible comedy that is also a rocking good time and it ought to be Hwang's next big hit on Broadway.
Chinglish will be performed through July 31st at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago. For ticket information, visit www.goodmantheatre.org, call 312-443-3800, or visit the Box Office.