David Henry Hwang's comedy looks at status and symbols.
Fri Oct 28 2011
Photograph: Michael McCabe
Chinglish at Longacre Theatre
Time Out Ratings :<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5
Much of the humor in David Henry Hwang's timely cross-cultural comedy, Chinglish, is found in translation. Desperate to explore new markets for his foundering Ohio sign-making business, Daniel Cavanaugh (Wilmes) has traveled to the Chinese city of Guiyang; unilingual in the American fashion, he is forced to rely on interpreters as he pitches his wares. These go-betweens tend to make a yummy hash of the dialogue, a good chunk of which is delivered in Mandarin, with supertitles projected onstage.
Language is just one of the barriers that Cavanaugh must surmount as he seeks his fortune with a tough cookie named Xi Yan (the exquisite Lim), a local government official who speaks a little English and with whom he strikes up a personal relationship. To some extent, as in Hwang's reputation-making M. Butterfly, this romance serves as a metaphor for American-Chinese power dynamics, which have shifted considerably since that earlier play. Yet the relationship is also compelling in its own right, especially since Hwang boldly gives Xi the bulk of the play's emotional complexity. (She even gets to express herself in brief interior monologues, a courtesy that Hwang does not extend to the fumbling American protagonist.)
Leigh Silverman's swift staging—ideally served by David Korins's marvelous rotating puzzle set—accents the jokes, and the mostly Asian cast of seven puts them across with finesse. This would be accomplishment enough on Broadway, where successful new comedies are scarce indeed. But Hwang's sharp-minded play goes beyond the laughs to leave you thinking about the persistence of miscommunication and the things that can sometimes transcend it. "When you speak," Xi says, "I love to watch your lips move."