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Saturday, 12 November 2011 12:26

Broadway Review: CHINGLISH

Written by
Jennifer Lim and Gary Wilmes Jennifer Lim and Gary Wilmes
Chinglish, the kinetic new play from David Henry Hwang (M, Butterfly), is a smart and funny look at the cultural differences and miscommunication between Chinese and Americans.   Daniel (a monotone Gary Wilmes) is a man down on his luck.  He’s a former Enron underling who is now an untouchable pariah in the job market.  He has gone back home to Ohio to salvage his family’s company, Ohio Signage, after his brother nearly ran it into the ground.
{module ad_left_body}The play begins with Daniel giving a presentation to the Commerce League of Ohio on doing business in China.  On the screen are various signs with Chinese characters and their mangled English translations.  “To take notice of safe: the slippery are very crafty” reads one sign.   It's supposed to say "slippery slopes ahead."  "Financial Affairs Is Everywhere Long" reads the next sign.  What does it mean?  “Chief Financial Officer.”   But the best one of all?  "Fuck the certain price of goods."  It's supposed to read "Dry Goods Pricing Department."

Flash back three years earlier to Daniel’s first trip to China.  He's in the office of the Minister of Culture for Guiyang City, Cai Guoliang (perfectly played by Larry Lei Zhang).    He's there to try and drum up business for his family’s sign company.  His conduit to the Minister is a teacher, Peter (a convincing Stephen Pucci).  Peter is "owed one" by the Minister.  He did a favor for the Minister’s son and helped him get into college.  

When Peter has his first meeting with the Minister, the icy Vice-Minister, Xi Yan (played by human firecracker Jennifer Lim) is also in the room.   Her performance as Xi is hilarious, with her clipped, broken English and emotional detachment.  This scene also features a fun performance by Angela Lin as Miss Quian, a translator who mangles the translations almost as much as the slides in the opening scene.  Xi and Daniel have a terrific scene where XI explains to him that he will never get the sign contract for the new cultural center as long as the current Minister is still in power.  The vendor got the deal "through the back door" (i.e., a family connection).

In Chinglish, the principal characters all have ulterior motives and aren't everything they seem to be on the surface.  Daniel has his Enron skeleton and a family business that is not much more than a cell phone and a website.  Though she is quick to hop into bed with Daniel, XI is married to a judge (Johnny Wu) whom she confesses to Daniel she does not love.  “Once — long time — but, no. Today, only husband.”   Not that she is ready to give up her marriage.  In fact she is just playing Daniel to her ambitious husband's advantage as he angles for her bosses job.

David Korins's revolving set is genius.  Every turn of the turntable reveals a new combination of walls and furniture that create a new environ.  Director Lee Silverman's even-handed direction keeps the action moving.  He uses actors crossing Korins's moving set to give a fluidity to the play.  The scene changes are covered by pumping Chinese pop music that also sustain the momentum of the play.

The most fascinating thing about this play is its look at the cultural differences between the East and the West. This includes things as small as how they reverently present a business card with both hands extended, to their odd fascination with America's financial debacles.  The production has engaged a pair of cultural consultants, Joanna C. Lee and Ken Smith.  Between playwright Hwang's own travel in China and these two consultants, they have created a culturally realistic and funny evening of theatre.
Last modified on Tuesday, 15 November 2011 21:08