Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - October 27, 2011
Chinglish by David Henry Hwang. Directed by Leigh Silverman. Scenic design by David Korins. Costume design by Anita Yavich. Lighting design by Brian MacDevitt. Sound design by Darron L. West. Projection design by Jeff Sugg, Shawn Duan. Cast: Jennifer Lim, Gary Wilmes, Angela Lin, Christine Lin, Stephen Pucci, Johnny Wu, Larry Lei Zheng.
Not for purposes of a gimmick, either. Daniel Cavanaugh (Gary Wilmes), you see, is a Cleveland sign magnate who doesn't speak a word of Chinese, so his desires to expand operations to Guiyang are hampered at the outset. He hires a consultant, Peter (Stephen Pucci), who's reportedly as fluent in matters of business as in matters of speech, to help him broker his deals, but even so there's a lot of room for error. In the various meetings in which Daniel tries to sell his services, Jeff Sugg and Shawn Duan's projections of Candace Chong's translations keep us apprised of what both English and Mandarin speakers really say, even if it's not always what they mean (and it's frequently not).
This leads to a series of uproarious misunderstandings, both small and large. But those surtitles move at exactly the speed of dialogue, and director Leigh Silverman has ensured they're always exactly where they need to be for you to see them without looking, whether on a strip of ceiling, a conveniently placed drop, or occasionally on a wall over an actor's head. Though roughly half the play is conducted in Chinese — with a couple of scenes containing no English whatsoever — you will never strain to follow what's unfolding onstage.
For that alone, Silverman's production, which originated at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago earlier this year, deserves praise. As for the play itself, it's Hwang's best work since M. Butterfly, though given entries like Yellow Face and the disastrous revival of Flower Drum Song that's perhaps not saying much. Hwang is most successful here when he sticks with his giddy exploration of communication, particularly how what we mean and what we say frequently get tangled up with societal and cultural constructs that add an even more confusing layer of significance to everything. Daniel's problem is less that he doesn't know the language of this new-to-him country than that he doesn't know its customs, its devotion to honor, and the importance tradition holds to it. This ignorance causes him far more trouble than a tied tongue, most frequently with Minister Cai (Larry Lei Zhang), whom he's trying to coax into a contract, and Cai's associate, Madame Xi (Jennifer Lim), who is both intrigued by and dismissive of most of Daniel's proposals.
As a result, the last third of the first act, and most of Act II, must be taken on faith, something made more difficult by the dearth of meaningful connection on which Hwang constructs the rest of his plot. The shallowness that defines Daniel and Xi is exacerbated to the point of caricature in the business scenes, which dwell on a running gag about every translator being explosively inept. Their attempts to bridge the language gap are, to be fair, hilarious, but they're also cheap: Are we supposed to root for any of these deals to go through with companies who don't care enough to make themselves understood to their clients?
It doesn't help that Wilmes plays Daniel as an overexcited college student on his first trip abroad, not a serious and successful businessman lost in unfamiliar waters, while everyone else plays an accomplished, focused adult. He seems especially limp opposite Lim, who's terrific as a sheltered executive with her own shady motives; you sense every drop of the exasperation and exultation she exudes as she attempts to cope with the limitations and possibilities of a man that alternately fascinates and enrages her. Pucci and Zhang fulfill their promise as opposing ends of their own little conspiracy story, and Angela Lin, Christine Lin, and Johnny Wu neatly fill out a variety of remaining roles.
The actors join Silverman, who's paced the action flawlessly, and the creative team in making Chinglish an effortless play to like, even if it's one that's impossible to love. David Korins's sparkling set design, constructing on two revolving platforms, is beautifully appointed, and suggests a number of crisply specific Guiyang locales; Anita Yavich's costumes and Brian MacDevitt's lights only further identify this as a colorful and unpredictable world just beyond Daniel's ken.
But it's the interplay of the two languages, as we both hear and see it, that provides the real fuel and fun for the evening. You'll unquestionably take away from each confrontation you witness the real point of the show: that something you may think is perfectly clear isn't necessarily obvious to someone else. Chinglish suffers because Hwang didn't better heed his own lesson, but it still provides considerable enjoyment with each new opportunity to see East and West collide in not just what they do but in what they say.