NEW YORK — David Korins’ ingenious set for Chinglish is a marvel of constant reinvention. Its twin turntables spin as panels glide into place and pieces lock seamlessly together to create a series of distinct spaces that have the sterility of business hotels, conference rooms and executive eateries the world over but enough Sino-specific detail to be clear about where we are. The problem is that not everything in David Henry Hwang’s mildly entertaining comedy is as fluid or dynamic as the scene changes.
Directed with brisk dispatch by Leigh Silverman, the production premiered at Chicago’s Goodman Theater early this summer and was rushed to Broadway on the strength of ecstatic reviews that called it Hwang’s best work since M. Butterfly. But one more draft and some further trimming of its two-hour running time might have been beneficial.
There’s no doubt that the play is timely. It takes a wry view of Chinese-American business dealings in which the traditional roles have been reversed, making the U.S. the economically lame underdog and China the industrial superpower with fat wads of cash. “The greatest pool of untapped consumers history has ever known,” is how Hwang’s lead character puts it. But audiences expecting major new insights into the unbridgeable gap in cultural understanding between East and West may be disappointed.
There’s no shortage of laughs. But unlike Hwang’s most recent and far more personal play, Yellow Face, where the humor was firmly rooted in the characters, the majority of the jokes here are based on linguistic gaffes. And whether the clash being negotiated in Chinglish is one of culture, language, business or personal relationships, the lost-in-translation thread gets tired.
The play is basically a story of miscommunication that follows the quest of Midwestern businessman Daniel Cavanaugh (Gary Wilmes). He travels to the provincial Chinese capital of Guiyang to secure a lucrative contract for his family signage firm in Cleveland to work on a massive new international arts center. Aided by his Mandarin-speaking British consultant, Peter (Stephen Pucci), Daniel needs to win over local cultural minister Cai (Larry Lei Zhang) and his prickly vice minister Xi Yan (Jennifer Lim). That entails building what Peter refers to as “guanxi,” or relationships.
Especially in the early action, humor is milked from the inept official interpreters’ amusingly warped translations, revealed in surtitles on Korins’ set. Daniel fumbles his way through a maze of back-door handshakes, strategic favors and hidden agendas, while attempting to master the necessary uses of boasting and false modesty where appropriate.
He arrives at a gradual understanding that transparency in business is a relative concept with help from Xi Yan. At first she appears to be an adversary, but when they fall into an adulterous relationship, Daniel gets a crash course in the nuances of honesty, loyalty and commitment.
The play’s best twist involves the revelation of Daniel’s involvement in a very public disgrace that makes him untouchable in the American business world yet an object of scintillating interest to the Chinese. It’s here that Hwang’s observations are sharpest. It’s also where the bland depiction of Daniel as an American Joe Schmo, open to all manner of interpretations by his potential partners, starts to make sense.
It may be central to the playwright’s point that fish-out-of-water Daniel is far less complex or charismatic than cool-headed pragmatist Xi Yan, who is both forthright and underhand in Lim’s biting, whip-smart performance. But it also tests the play’s balance.
While there are melancholy notes in Daniel’s isolation as written, Wilmes struggles to find them. His frustrated attempts to fathom Chinese business protocol are nothing compared to his head-scratching confusion over Xi Yan’s entirely foreign views on romantic love and marriage. But Silverman pushes the comedy at the expense of the emotional undertones, which gives the production the somewhat effortful feel of an idiosyncratic play sacrificing its subtleties while straining to fill a big theater.
Venue: Longacre Theatre, New York
Cast: Jennifer Lim, Gary Wilmes, Angela Lin, Christine Lin, Stephen Pucci, Johnny Wu, Larry Lei Zhang
Playwright: David Henry Hwang
Director: Leigh Silverman
Set designer: David Korins
Costume designer: Anita Yavich
Lighting designer: Brian MacDevitt
Sound designer: Darron L. West
Projection designers: Jeff Sugg, Shawn Duan
Presented by Jeffrey Richards, Jerry Frankel, Jay & Cindy Gutterman/Cathy Chernoff, Heni Koenisberg/Lily Fan, Joseph & Matthew Deitch, Dasha Epstein, Ronald & Marc Frankel, Barry & Carole Kaye, Mary Lu Roffe, The Broadway Consortium, Ken Davenport, Filerman Bensinger, Herbert Goldsmith, Jam Theatricals, Olympus Theatricals, Playful Productions, David & Barbara Stoller, Roy Gottlieb, Mary Casey, Hunter Arnold, in association with the Goodman Theatre