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Chinglish @ Longacre Theatre

In a sequence of mistranslations, Chinglish, by David Henry Hwang, takes mangled cultural cues and turns it into a witty comedy about the challenges of doing business in a different country. Daniel Cavanaugh, a disgraced Enron executive, comes to Guiyang, China, in hopes that his family business, a sign making company, will recoup when he advises that his business will benefit Guiyang’s new world class arts center by preventing embarrassing translation errors. He hires Peter Timms as his consultant and translator, who has worked as a teacher in China for 20 years, and is owed a favor by a Chinese Official. As the plot unravels, Daniel tumbles into an adulterous relationship with Xu Yan, a formidable Vice Minister of culture who becomes Daniel’s unexpected ally. Due to its successful run at the Goodman Theatre, in Chicago, Chinglish landed in its current home, in the Longacre Theatre, on Broadway. About a quarter of the script is written in Mandarin which required super-sized subtitles to be projected in English on the walls of the elaborate revolving set by David Korins. Like many great playwrights, David Henry Hwang uses his sharp humor to express societal problems and paradoxes, which leads to hilarious mix-ups over vocabulary and points of view. It is not the word you say but it’s how the word is expressed by the tone of your voice that could give it a different meaning.

My problem is that the closing scene didn’t frame the play’s resolution when projecting Daniel’s Power Point presentation on the difficulties of conducting business in a foreign country. Also, the direction felt slightly stale and one note due to the lack of action on stage. There was a lot of standing, and sitting around, which held back the performances, especially from Gary Wilmes (Daniel Cavanaugh). His chemistry with his character and with Xu Yan lacked the essential affect that any performer would want to project to the audience in order feel a certain emotion. However Jennifer Lim (Xu Yan) was spirited and lively, especially when language barriers became more apparent. She displays various emotions to go along with the layers of language, and embodies the notion that Daniel may understand her words but doesn’t understand the true meaning behind them. Her comical frustration is felt, and when she speaks about her troubled marriage, you sense her yearning.

Chinglish is one of David Henry Hwang’s more recognizable plays since M Butterfly. The reversal of fortune gives the play a considerable charisma, and, therefore, humor is not lost. Translators required.

Chinglish is now playing at the Longacre Theatre. For more information, please visit chinglishbroadway.com 

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One Comment

  • 9 Nov 2011 | Permalink |

    I thought Chinglish had flashes of humor but the characters seemed underdeveloped to the point where they were stereotypes: clueless American, British expat who goes “native,” the alluring yet devious Asian woman. Still, I saw it the day after Mike Daisey’s The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, so it was interesting to get another take on doing business in China.

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