Many plays are said to be “about” language, but perhaps none has so directly explored the comic confusions of our modern, Babel-like culture clashes as David Henry Hwang’s splendidly savvy and entertaining new work “Chinglish,” receiving its world premiere at the Goodman Theater in Chicago.
Play follows an Ohio businessman Daniel Cavanaugh (James Waterston) as he attempts to make a deal for his family’s signage business in the obscure Chinese city of Guiyang, where “Chinglish” mistranslations mean that a sign marking the office of a chief financial officer might read “Financial Affairs is Everywhere Long;” or the expression that “My hands are tied” might emerge quite understandably through a translator as “He is in bondage;” or, finally, the desire to say “We are both tired” comes out as “We are sleeping together,” which in context has more truth than intended.
The dialogue contains at least as much Mandarin as it does English, which means that reading super-titles projected onto the walls of David Korins’ revolving double-unit set becomes a core part of the experience.
The chasm between the projected translation and the spoken interpretation generates consistent humor, which Hwang manages to maintain throughout the two-hour running time. Director Leigh Silverman has also carefully paced the scenes so the translations are never projected for too long nor disappear too quickly. From a commercial perspective, think of this as the “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” of American theater, not because of its plot, but because it’s a completely accessible work executed so well that reading the projected translations becomes effortless.
The accomplishment can’t be separated from Hwang’s development of a well-plotted and just-twisty-enough story, as Daniel, his Mandarin-speaking Australian consultant Peter (Stephen Pucci), the city’s cultural minister (Larry Zhang), and his not-so-loyal vice minister Xu Yan (Jennifer Lim) all expose their secrets and ulterior motives.
Lim deserves special mention, as she invests her character with layers of emotions to go along with the layers of language, and ultimately is the one who most embodies the notion that just because she might make Daniel understand her words, it doesn’t mean he understands her.
It’s appropriate that Lim becomes a more interesting character than the presumable American lead, since part of Hwang’s point is that Americans hold on to a self-centered concept that they can make things happen with enough entrepreneurial pluck, when in truth what happens in China has so much more to do with the Chinese.