Here we have a comedy, a first, dealing with meeting the needs of the USA and China when doing business together. In Chinglish, David Henry Hwang’s play, a smalltime American business man is visiting a small company in Guiyang,China in an attempt to get a contract for his sign company to produce signs in English that are accurate translations of their Chinese originals.
As played by Gary Wilmes, the American is pitted against a very astute and formidable Chinese administrator, Xi Yan, in what I like to call ‘the Rosalind Russell role’, meaning the well tailored female executive who will fight her male vis-à-vis until they end up between the sheets, where their combative styles create some heat.
Mr. Hwang has already proved, in M Butterfly and Yellow Face and other works for the stage, that he has an original mind, that he can interest us in his tales of the co-mingling of the sexes in worlds that are mysterious and alluring as its characters make contact from very different cultures and customs.
But in Chinglish he’s boxed himself into a corner, using as his sole source for humor the amusing misinterpretations when trying to translate idioms and metaphors into comparable terms in another language. In this play, using projections on the rear walls, we see how comically askew a simple admonition like “‘slippery slopes ahead” can become “take notice of safe. The slippery are very crafty” when translators get their hands on them. It’s thin stuff on which to base a full length play, suited more to a sketch on “Saturday Night Live” or an episode on a sitcom.
Under Leigh Silverman’s direction, it’s all played as laugh-track sitcom at times, switching suddenly to romantic comedy, and again to lecture as it moves cinematically around the town. David Korin’s well choreographed set takes us from a restaurant booth to a street to the lobby of a swank apartment house up the elevator to a living room and then into the bedroom. It’s fun watching all this, but it’s not good when one’s mind is turned away from the play itself, channeling instead to appreciation of the dancing walls.
When Gary Wilmes and Angela Lin are working through their boy-girl complications, they play it for real, and we engage in their story. But when the Chinese executives and secretaries deal with Wilmes’ proposals for his sign company, they are written and played as cartoon characters. When it turns out that Wilmes’ character knew many of the principals in the Enron scandal, they hoot and holler as though in a Tom and Jerry episode.
I did feel I’d learned something of the ways in which the international community is learning to understand and accept each other’s customs and traditions, for we know the world grows smaller every day, and we’re either going to learn to live and work together, or we’re going to explode. It’s Mr. Huang’s mission to shed some light on the goings on when cultures clash, and for that we owe him gratitude. It’s just that I found Chinglish lacking as pure farce, not witty enough to sustain itself as romantic comedy, and not rich enough in detail to serve as educational documentary. As a result, it’s an intermittently entertaining comedy about a fresh subject, an appealing “almost”, a “neither/nor”, a “near miss.”
Chinglish is at the Longacre Theatre, 220 W 48th St, NYC.
Details and tickets
Broadway performer, agent, writer, and now librettist, among his many accomplishments, Richard Seff has written the book for Shine! The Horatio Alger Musical!, which debuted at the 2010 New York Musical Theatre Festival. He is also author of Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stagecelebrating his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes, available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
Read more at RichardSeff.com
- Richard Seff on DCTS – interviews Broadway luminaries:
Richard Seff chats with Joel Markowitz: