Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

San Francisco Playhouse
Review by Patrick Thomas

Also see Patrick's review of Where Did We Sit on the Bus?

Phil Wong, Xun Zhang, Sharon Shao,
Michael Barrett Austin, and Nicole Tung

Photo by Jessica Palopoli
Making connections isn't always easy. We fallible humans may misinterpret what is said to us, others may misread the cues we send (either consciously or subconsciously, verbally or unspoken), and even speaking the same language, our choice of words may be lost in fogs of inattention or deficits of understanding. The problem becomes significantly more complex when the communication being attempted comprises two different languages. When one of those languages is English (which has drawn words from dozens other languages, as well as featuring multiple homophones and homonyms) and the other is Mandarin Chinese (notoriously difficult to learn and requiring an "alphabet" of about 50,000 characters that were simplified by Chairman Mao in the hope of improving literacy, but also creating confusion and double or triple meanings), the opportunities for miscommunication increase logarithmically.

Fortunately for audiences who choose to see David Henry Hwang's Chinglish, now playing at San Francisco Playhouse under the skilled direction of Jeffrey Lo, all those possibilities for miscommunication are also opportunities for some terrific comedy. Add to that the fact that SF Playhouse has cast a brilliant group of actors, and you have the formula for an evening of hearty laughter.

The core of Chinglish is the story of American businessman Daniel Cavanaugh (Michael Barrett Austin) looking to make a deal in Guiyang, a "small" city by Chinese standards–with a population of "only" four million. However, as Daniel learns from Peter (Matthew Bohrer), the British ex-pat consultant he has hired to help land a deal to make signs for the new Guiyang cultural center, the local custom is to be self-effacing and humble and allow others to sing your praises. The fact that Daniel is in the sign business (a family-run operation he took over after an embarrassing [to him] stint with a U.S. company famous for fraud) is an apt choice. For Chinglish is, at its core, a play about the clash of cultures as represented by the missteps that occur when translations are less than perfect. There are books filled with examples of mistranslations that may be hysterical to a western sensibility, and several wonderful instances are highlighted here. Part of Daniel's pitch is that he will help the local minister (an hysterically dour Alex Hsu) avoid embarrassment when, for example, the characters for "Handicapped Rest Room" become "Deformed Man's Toilet." When the minister's deputy speaks out of turn, her boss states, "The vice minister can be very passionate," but this is translated to Daniel as "She is a woman–she can be very emotional."

The miscommunications are fodder for many of the funniest moments in Chinglish, but they would be insufficient to carry the comic load without the delightfully talented cast. Austin is wonderful as Daniel, a man grasping at a second chance for success after his stateside reputation was sullied by the criminality of his previous employer. His face shows the churning that is going on inside as his comments are misunderstood or mistranslated, each moment threatening to dismantle his plans.

As Xi Yan, the minister's deputy, Nicole Tung has one of the juiciest roles, and slurps it up as lustily as a patron at a sidewalk noodle stand. In one scene she is the reserved underling, mostly stone-faced and revealing nothing, and in the next lays bare her own self-interested agenda with a saucy confidence. Bohrer is marvelously unctuous as the consultant ostensibly aiding Daniel, though his British accent occasionally slips southward into an Aussie twang. The entire ensemble, however, is perfectly balanced and in tune with each other. There is no miscommunication among them as actors, only as their characters.

The set by Andrea Bechert is composed of a massive collection of sliding screens that smoothly aid the transitions and establish new settings.

After two recent misses by the good folks at SF Playhouse (the rather clumsy musical take on Shakespeare's As You Like It and the silly in all the wrong ways Clue), I am heartened to see the return to their usual level of excellence.

Chinglish runs through June 10, 2023, at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street, San Francisco CA. Performances are Tuesdays-Thursdays at 7:00 p.m., Fridays at 8:00 p.m., Saturdays at 3:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Tickets are $15-$100. For tickets and information, please visit or call the box office at 415-677-9596.