Sunday, November 13, 2011

Review of "Chinglish"

Chinglish, the concatenation of Chinese and English, is the recently opened Broadway comedy, which deals with cultural and language misinterpretation and misinformation. Fitfully funny and sometimes somber the play, by Tony Award winning playwright, David Henry Hwang (he wrote the brilliant M. Butterfly from 1988) opens with Midwestern businessman, Daniel Cavanaugh, giving a lecture—to both an unseen Ohio-based Chamber of Commerce group as well as the theater audience—on his exploits in China. The thrust of his talk revolves around the mistranslation of everyday Chinese worded signs and numerous demonstrations are projected above the stage of the Longacre Theater. Soon after, the audience is thrust back in time as we witness the beginnings of Cavanaugh’s initial trip to China with the goal of securing a contract for his family-owned sign making business. To assist in his efforts he hires a British expatriate and self-styled business consultant, Peter Timms, to help him navigate the ways of this foreign land. Naturally, nothing goes right with their dealings with bureaucrats as Chinese traditions, practices and language conspire against the hapless Cavanaugh…that is until his relationship with Deputy Minister Xi Yan, begin to blossom in multiple ways.

Playwright David Henry Hwang has crafted a comedy that, in essence, is a tale of “mis” as in misdirection, misinformation, and mistranslation. What is perceived and believed to be the truth is not always to be accepted or to be trusted. His use of supertitles, projected over the stage—much of the dialogue is in Chinese—can be distracting and a possible annoyance to theatergoers that would rather hear spoken words as opposed to reading, too. But the projected text, in a way, gives the audience a taste of what the forlorn Cavanaugh is experiencing with his frustration and disgruntlement.

The entire cast of Chinglish is marvelous. Standouts include Gary Wilmes, as the unsophisticated, fish out-of-water, Daniel Cavanaugh, who is perfect in the part. Cavanaugh desperately wants, even needs, his situation to pan out and Wilmes’ quirks and hopeless looks only magnify his character’s anguish and discomfort. At first, Jennifer Lim as the stoic, no-nonsense, Xi Yan, seems one-dimensional and more of a comic foil, but very soon her multi-faceted persona and, later, her hidden agenda reveal a more complex and knowing individual. Stephen Pucci, as the somewhat mysterious and ill-tempered consultant, Peter Timms, is both suave and smarmy. And his Mandarin Chinese is quite good, too.

The set by David Korins deserves specific praise. A revolving set of interchangeable pieces, spin together to form a dizzying array of locales and spaces. The changeovers are quick, effortless, and quite an achievement. Kudos.

Director Leigh Silverman provides sleek guidance, allowing each scene to evolve and develop within Hwang’s words. He skillfully marshals the action through the numerous set changes, deftly steering the performances through the twists and turns of the plot.

Chinglish, now on Broadway at the Longacre Theater.