Peter D. Kramer

Found in translation: The charm of ‘Chinglish’

In Reviews on October 28, 2011 at 10:07 am

“Chinglish”— David Henry Hwang’s funny take on an American trying to gain a foothold in the Chinese market and suffering from one bad translator after another — is a lot of things.

It’s a fish-out-of-water story — but those are a dime a dozen.

It’s a quirky sort of romantic comedy — but we’ve seen plenty of those.

It’s a story about different cultures, but Hwang’s Tony-winner “M. Butterfly” (and even “The Book of Mormon,” for that matter) trod the same ground.

“Chinglish,” which opened last night at Broadway’s Longacre Theatre, is also an unlikely commentary on the psyches of two economic giants, with a quarter of the dialogue in Mandarin Chinese with supertitles.

Ahhh. It’s the only one of those.

It would be easy, and a bit unfair, to dismiss Hwang’s comedy as a one-trick pony: We get it. There’s a language barrier. Move on.

But there’s more at work here.

We meet Daniel Cavanaugh, of Ohio Signage, a company bound to make it in China by getting the contract to make the signs for a new provincial cultural center. To do that — he learns from a British ex-pat Peter Timms whom Cavanaugh hires to show him the ropes — he needs to build relationships, or as the Chinese put it: “guanxi.”

Guanxi takes time, Cavanaugh learns. And guanxi requires proper translation.

In scene after scene, the befuddled Cavanaugh (played with appeal by Gary Wilmes) runs up against bad translators (the hilarious Angela Lin, Christine Lin, Johnny Wu), whose ridiculously poor translations are projected onto the set.

He says “We’re a small family firm.”

The translator says “His company is tiny and insignificant.”

Cavanaugh is interested in business; the Chinese minister wants to talk about Chicago, a big American city. The American wants the contract; the Chinese minister wants to make a connection to a big, important American city. The American is bowing; the Chinese minister basks in the reflected glow that is America.

These perspectives underlie everything in “Chinglish.” Late in the action, it comes to a head when Xi, the vice-minister who is in bed with Cavanaugh (in more ways than one) puts a finer point on it.

“Xi: One day, China will be strong!
Daniel: Wait. What are you —? “One day?” You’re strong now! We’re the ones who are weak!
Xi: What?
Daniel: China — strong! America — weak!
Xi: Some day.
Daniel: No. Now!
Xi: This is why it’s so difficult to get ahead of America. Even when you are strong, you still act like you’re weak.”

For all that is lost in translation in “Chinglish”  there is something found: different perspectives on love and marriage, on fame and scandal.

Stephen Pucci, as the consultant Timms, and Larry Lei Zhang, as Minister Cai Guoliang, add much to the goings-on: two men scratching their way along, trying to re-create themselves but running headlong into reality that keeps them where they are.

If Cavanaugh feels like the world is spinning around him, David Korins’ set builds on that feeling: sleek set pieces spin and reconfigure — from a conference room to a hotel lobby to a hotel room to a bar — in dizzying yet elegant fashion.

When all seems lost for Cavanaugh — the barriers seem too great, the corruption unnavigable — he is saved by something he has tried to hide from his past.

Something very big.

Something very important.

Something very American.

When it is revealed — sorry, you won’t read about it here, the surprise is part of the journey — a wave of delight goes through the Longacre.

If you worry that reading the supertitles will get in the way of seeing the action: don’t. Jeff Sugg’s and Shawn Duan’s projections are seamless and sleek and provide the bulk of the evening’s punchlines, as in a particularly wonderful scene when the excellent Jennifer Lim (as Xi), describes how marriages work in China.

Let’s just say it’s not about love.

Or dust.

And it’s not lost in translation.

Photos by Michael McCabe: Top, from left:  Gary Wilmes, Angela Lin and Larry Lei Zhang. Middle, from left: Jennifer Lim and Gary Wilmes. Bottom, from left: Stephen Pucci and Jennifer Lim.

Check out the “Chinglish” on Broadway website.

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