Chinglish: Theater Review
An American businessman visits a provincial Chinese metropolis in this timely consideration of socio-cultural relations.
An American businessman, Daniel Cavanaugh (Alex Moggridge), comes to a provincial Chinese metropolis, Guiyang (more populous than Los Angeles), to pitch a contract supplying signage for the new international cultural center intended to implement the new progressive policy of internal development (in this case by attracting tourism). He defends his higher-priced bid on the grounds that quality control will minimize embarrassing translation errors (example: “F--- the Certain Price of Goods” instead of “Dry Goods Pricing Department," the result of the Chinese character for “dry” also meaning “to do,” which has the same vernacular meaning in Mandarin as in English).
The Chinese, understandably, are skeptical, though to an American’s perception, no one’s opinion squares with their statements. Politeness can be an instrument of manipulation, especially for the guileless. Issues of honesty and how it is expressed reside at the center of Chinglish, which applies its insightful vision to all its human interactions and transactions, whether public or intimate, commercial or for pleasure. Daniel finds himself unaccountably being mentored by the initially hostile vice minister of culture, Xi Yan (Michelle Krusiec), a tough-minded new breed of party-line stalwart, who finds escape, if not romance, in their eventual trysts.
For all its unremitting relevance, this persistently funny and discomfortingly timely play boasts the bones of vaudeville comedy routines of ethnic misunderstanding, and in a less “enlightened” era might have served as a Bob Hope vehicle, although the protagonist is more shot through with the ambiguous brand of ingenuous dissembling of one of Graham Greene’s loquacious Americans.
Playwright David Henry Hwang, having grown up in the San Gabriel Valley and with little command of Mandarin (or, for that matter, of business), surely identifies more closely with the Ohio salesman than the Chinese officialdom, yet he also knowingly teases audience expectations with deployments of familiar “Oriental” tropes, such as the Dragon Lady, or wily, inscrutable schemers who variously aid or impede the Western interloper, which provides grist for many surprise turnabouts.
The production is sharply turned out, light on its feet, with a refreshing pace of forward momentum, especially for a two-act rib-tickler. For a show in which the English supertitles often get the actual laughs, the actors display impeccable timing, a challenge when so much of the discussion consists of mangled translations through intermediaries, or repeated failures to make oneself understood.
The central relationship may not be especially convincing, but it expresses such compelling and interesting ideas that disbelief is never a hindrance to appreciating the layers of contradiction conveyed through two characters who can barely communicate verbally, yet manage to make both personal and professional progress.
This mounting will move directly from Orange County to China, where one can only wonder whether audiences may find it as amusing or as trenchant.
Venue: South Coast Repertory, Costa Mesa (runs through Feb. 24)
Cast: Alex Moggridge, Michelle Krusiec, Brian Nishii, Raymond Ma, Vivian Chiu, Celeste Den, Austin Ku
Director: Leigh Silverman
Playwright: David Henry Hwang; Mandarin Chinese translations by Candace Chong
Set Designer: David Korins
Lighting Designer: Brian MacDevitt
Sound Designer: Darron L. West
Costume Designer: Nancy A. Palmatier based on original design by Anita Yavich
Projection Designer: Jeff Sugg, Shawn Duan