Monday, November 21, 2011

Chinglish: more than fortune cookie fun

Seeing David Henry Hwang's new play, Chinglish, now on Broadway and briskly directed by Leigh Silverman, is like going on the perfect date. You feel very comfortable with the other person, who is polite and eager to please but very witty. Things turn a little sexy and surprising halfway through and you end the evening feeling you've come to understand another human being and you are, well, satisfied.

The play, from the author of the extraordinary M. Butterfly, is told in flashback as American businessman Daniel Cavanaugh begins giving a corporate presentation on doing business in China. Seems he's the proprietor of a Cleveland-based, family-owned sign company. Three years ago, he was trying to convince the town officials of Guiyang that his firm should supply signs for a new cultural center - and avoid the garbled and laughable "Chinglish" on many signs in China. ("Fuck goods" in a grocery store is actually "dry goods," as the modern Chinese character for "dry" and "do" -- as in "to do" someone -- are the same, Cavanaugh explains.)

He picks up as a translator and all-around fixer Peter Timms, a local British teacher who has been living in the country many years and speaks fluent Mandarin. (A delightful bit of information from the Playbill is that actor Stephen Pucci holds a B.A. in Mandarin Chinese from Leeds University/Tianjin Normal University.)

Jennifer Lim as Xi Yan and Gary Wilmes as Daniel Cavanaugh in Chinglish
But of course, the local minister of culture, Cai Guoliang (the suave Larry Lei Zhang) has brought his own hapless translator who mangles such business overtures as "Here's why we're worth the money" into "He will explain why he spends money so recklessly."

While the apparently-affable Cai seems like a fellow one can "do business with" (to echo Margaret Thatcher's famous assessment of Mikhail Gorbachev), vice minister Xi Yan (Jennifer Lim) maintains a composure of steel.

Cavanaugh tries to read the signs communicated in non-written form when people from different cultures meet. Soon, those signals lead to an affair between Cavanaugh and Xi Yan, but each of them have very different motivations. Cavanaugh soon discovers that Timms and Cai also have agendas that won't necessarily align with what seems to be a pretty simple mission: sell some sturdy, correctly-written, American-made signs to the Chinese.

As a comedy, Chinglish is a tamer look at East-West relations than the dark M. Butterfly, but the American's guileless attempt to come to grips with a complex ancient world brings to mind Henry James' novels of Americans in Europe. David Korins' brilliant revolving set seems like a visual maze that complements the characters' dilemmas. Much of the dialogue is in Mandarin, with translations projected on the set and beautifully designed by Jeff Sugg and Shawn Duan. I loved hearing lengthy conversations in this musical, dramatic language.  

Wilmes gives us an attractive, affecting portrait of a middle class Midwesterner (who has a surprise up his sleeve about his background), but one would have liked his character to show a little more deeply how the China experience changed him. Lim reveals a number of layers to Xi Yan, a woman who knows herself and what she wants. Pucci and Lei Zhang create well-rounded characters, but director Silverman possibly could have asked the supporting actors not to play "Oriental" stereotypes quite so broadly.

All told, though, this dramatic Chinese meal doesn't leave you hungry an hour later.