review: chinglish

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Chinglish

by David Henry Hwang
Directed by Leigh Silverman
Featuring Gary Wilmes, Jennifer Lim, Stephen Pucci
Longacre Theatre, 220 West 48th Street
October 26, 2011 — present
production web site

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
October 30, 2011

  • “Bring your own translator.”
  • “Where is company … in your pants?”
  • “Every once in a while a mystery becomes clear.”
  • “Love — it is your American religion.”
L-R Jennifer Lim, Gary Wilmes. Photo by Michael McCabe.

This is a play about language and nuance and cultural context and political surprises and second chances.  The playwright tells a group of assembled bloggers before our Sunday matinée that he thought was setting out to write a cross cultural Glengarry Glen Ross inspired by famously mistranslated signs (English to Chinese and Chinese to English) that form the reality and metaphor of the play’s title — “the siren  lies” equals “false alarm”, that kind of thing.  What Hwang discovered during the first reading of this play some time ago, he tells us, is that his business drama was in fact a comedy and he set about honing it with director Leigh Silverman and the design team.  This is not a slap stick comedy but a human story at which we laugh and see ourselves — spouses trapped by choice or by culture in functional but not love-filled marriages, cultural missteps we all make, professional dead ends, life choices.  It is a quiet ride, an evocative ride. We don’t feel deeply with the characters (though our political spouse Xi Yan played by Jennifer Lim reaches me at many points), but we think profound thoughts.  As playwright Hwang notes to us prior to the performance: this international production provides the substance, the authenticity, the texture of the Chinese-American cultural relationship during this era of shifting cultural and political power — “This is what this moment in history is about.”

Our story begins with a flashback set up — entrepreneur David Cavanaugh (Gary Wilmes) lectures us this audience as an Ohio business assemblage, on the Chinglish signage theme (with slides) that provides the speaker’s classic goal — begin with a joke or two then get into the meat of your message.  With a final comment that rreads like a joke then is understood as the whole gist of the play (“bring your own translator”), we are taken back three years, where we live until we return to David on stage at the end of the play, to work through the lessons learned. In image, in projected translations, in misunderstandings and mis-representations.  In second chances.

David travels to China to attempt to make a deal in Quiyang, a mid-sized Chinese City (not the coastal behemoths Shanghai or Beijing) with the translation help of long-term resident “Teacher Peter”, Peter Timms (Stephen Pucci).  With Peter’s assistance David promotes his Ohio sign company to Minister Cai Guoliang (Larry Lei Zhang) and his assistants and political functionary Xi Yan in attendance.  Xi Yan is delegated by the minister to dine with David, inform him of conflicting holds on the minister’s freedom to grant contracts, and we’re off to the races — who is sleeping with whom literally and in business is in a sense the rest of the play.  Where people move on stage is not the primary focus of our attention — though secondary characters slide  through the shifting scenery gently and smoothly.  The stars of the visual show on display at the Longacre are the projected supertitles providing English translations (accurate or inaccurate, by intent or by accident) and the set itself by David Korins.  Director Silverman in the preshow discussion reflects upon the design as “a kind of Chinese puzzle that opens on itself” providing elegance and mystery.

This is an intellectual rather than an emotional play for most of the ride.  One exception is, for me, the story of political wife Xi Yan who discloses, primarily in dialogue she doesn’t translate for her on stage partner but is translated for us in the audience, her marital life built as a strategic partnership rather than a love affair with her politically ambitious husband.  She dismisses love as an “American religion”, yet leaves open a door for us to feel with and for her.  Another exception is the Western long-term Chinese resident “Teacher Peter”, who tells a tale of old age loneliness late in the play.  A story of small  moments with deft and delicate direction and staging and musicality.  And sound design by Darron L. West is luscious.

© Martha Wade Steketee (October 31, 2011)

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