Chinglish, at Broadway's Longacre Theatre
Gratuitous Violins rating: *** out of ****
During the year I lived in Israel, my halting attempts to speak Hebrew resulted in lots of linguistic misadventures. They weren't quite like the ones in Chinglish but similar enough so that David Henry Hwang's play resonated with me.
Daniel Cavanaugh, played by Gary Wilmes, is an affable Cleveland businessman on his first trip to China. His family owned company is trying to win a contract to make English-language signs for a new cultural center but he's got big language and cultural barriers to surmount.
To help, Cavanaugh has hired Peter, a Chinese-speaking British expatriate played by Stephen Pucci, as a consultant. Jennifer Lim and Larry Lei Zhang are Xi Yan and Minister Cai Guoliang, two of the bureaucrats he has to win over.
Chinglish is all about the misunderstandings - personal, cultural and linguistic - that result. And it features a great set by David Korins, with pieces that kind of move in and out on turntables.
There's a lot of Mandarin dialogue and it's translated into English on supertitles, which often wildly miss the mark. As part of his sales pitch, Cavanaugh shows some examples of unintentionally funny English-language signs in China. And when he explains that he directs all operations for his company, the translator tells the Chinese officials: "he's also a surgeon."
Let me just say that while I laughed, I sympathized, too. I remember a few times getting a bewildered look from an Israeli for using the wrong Hebrew word or phrase. Becoming fluent in a foreign language is tough. I also know what it's like to sit in a meeting and not understand anything that's being said. So I can understand how Cavanaugh felt.
Hwang does make some interesting points about China - especially the lack of functioning legal system. It was a good complement to The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, which touches on the plight of Chinese factory workers.
Probably the most hilarious scene occurs in Act II, when Cavanaugh reveals his connection to a scandal-ridden American company. Rather than being repulsed, the Chinese were impressed to a point that seemed unbelievable.
The problem is, you can only go so far with the lost in translation angle before it seems a bit old hat. (I wonder how that would be translated?) And Hwang's characters are drawn so broadly that they're really more caricatures than fully developed human beings.
I'm guessing that he was trying to be tongue-in-cheek with Chinglish. Wilmes's Cavanaugh is the naive American. Pucci is amusing as the expat who's "gone native," becoming more Chinese than the Chinese themselves. And Lim is terrific as the alluring Asian "dragon lady." Her character is probably the most nuanced. It was just hard to feel emotionally invested in any of them.
In the end, I thought Chinglish was funny and entertaining, if slight. The play is a combination sex farce, innocent abroad and clash of cultures, none of which was developed enough to be truly meaningful.