If you find yourself in a foreign country unable to speak the language (as I have), it’s easier if you’ve got a really strong translator. Not only someone who can translate the words, but understands the idioms and colloquialisms of both your native language as well as the language of those with whom you’re trying to communicate. If not, you can find yourself getting into some very interesting situations like those experienced by Daniel Cavanaugh, the American businessman at the heart of Chinglish, David Henry Hwang’s new light comedy playing at the Longacre Theatre.
Chinglish is a throwback to culture clash comedies of the 1950s and 60s, the kind we rarely see anymore, but with a contemporary edge. An American businessman goes to China in a last gasp effort to salvage his family’s failed sign business. The play begins with a lecture that establishes everything you need to know about the idea of chinglish (google it and see), with the play hinging on mistranslations and misunderstandings. I must confess, I was not aware at the great complexity of the Chinese language. I can’t speak a word of it. I also have to confess, I had to look up the term chinglish as I was mostly unfamiliar with what it meant.
But one needn’t fear. Knowledge of the Chinese language, or lack thereof, won’t impact the enjoyment of the comedy. The stakes aren’t very high, but the characters are warm and likable, flawed and complex individuals. Hwang establishes a familiar premise: an American trying to understand and handle the cultural differences with an Asian country, the focus on language barriers opens up to some amusing set pieces (most notable: the American’s disastrous attempts to say “I love you” in Chinese). The piece is slight, and doesn’t delve as deep into the situation as one might hope, but that doesn’t stop Chinglish from being great entertainment.
The ensemble of seven is outstanding. Gary Wilmes plays the bemused businessman as a modern day variation on Jimmy Stewart, with a sort of “Aw shucks” Americana surrounding his every move, even his more salacious activities. Stephen Pucci endearingly plays a British expatriate teacher obsessed with all things China who unwittingly puts the protagonist through some unusual and awkward business meetings. In the pivotal role of Xi Yan, Jennifer Lim is making her Broadway debut. Her performance is the sort that captivates immediately, all the more impressive as she isn’t the focus of her first scene. Xi Yan is, ultimately, the most fascinating character in the play and Lim is the find of the season.
David Korins set design is among the most imaginative and thrilling of any show I’ve seen in recent years, with revolving set pieces that move like a Chinese puzzle. It’s a marvel of stage craft, and in fact I was just as excited for the transitions into scenes as I was for the scenes themselves. Leigh Silverman (who did exemplary work with Lisa Kron’s Well) stages the scenes, especially the bilingual ones, with clarity. It’s not difficult to follow the super titles (an experience not unlike going to the opera or a foreign film – you forget you’re reading lines), and Ms. Silverman and Mr. Korins have made great use of the set for projecting the words the audience needs to read.