David Henry Hwang puts a happy face on “Chinglish,” his new play about a naive American entrepreneur who crashes head-first into language and cultural barriers when he tries to do business in China. But behind its cheerful facade, this well-made comedy takes a poignant view of the profound isolation and terrible vulnerability of people who are lost without their native language. Like the delicacy of Hwang’s writing, the subtlety of that point tends to get lost in the broad comic spirit of this Broadway show — which suggests a more intimate setting for any future productions.
Director Leigh Silverman, who was also at the helm when show opened to kudos at the Goodman, takes every step — from setting a brisk performance pace for the excellent cast to staging scenes along space-filling horizontal lines — to assert the play’s unpretentious charms.
David Korins’ witty scenic design, in particular, creates a cozy perspective for each of the multiple scenes set in the provincial Chinese city of Guiyang where a Cleveland businessman has gone to drum up trade for his sign company back home. Revolving setpieces (depicting hotel rooms, restaurants, lecture halls and the imposing offices of the town’s cultural ministers) glide in on tracks from both sides of the stage and link up in the middle like the rooms of a reconstructed dollhouse.
Daniel Cavanaugh (Mr. All-American Nice Guy, in Gary Wilmes’ amiable perf) is pushing a product the Chinese can really use — signage with English translations that don’t make people double up with laughter. Much hilarity is made of public notices like “Fuck the Certain Price of Goods” (for “Dry Goods Pricing Department”), the unfortunate literary efforts of Chinese translators like the hapless specimen played so amusingly here by Angela Lin.
With the help of Peter Timms (played with great comic verve by Stephen Pucci), a seedy-looking expat Englishman who speaks impeccable Mandarin and serves as his translator and cultural guide, Daniel is awarded the contract to supply the signage for a new Cultural Center. But after a series of hilarious meetings with the Minister of Culture (a bureaucrat to the bone, in Larry Lei Zhang’s perf) in which everyone talks at cross-purposes and no one understands what anyone else is saying (unless they can read the droll supertitles above their heads), the precious contract is withdrawn.
Suspicion for the double-cross falls on Xi Yan, the gorgeous but treacherous Vice Minister played with ferocious comic energy by the enchanting Jennifer Lim. But as Daniel comes to (mis)understand, from pillow-talk exchanges with this delightful creature, Chinese business practices are no less corrupt than those conducted in the States. They’re just a whole lot funnier in the convoluted argot of “Chinglish.”
Looking back on his education-by-fire, Daniel comes up with the sobering moral that individuals (and perhaps nations) might never be able to learn the language and bridge the vast social divide between cultures. “You can see that we don’t really understand each other too well,” he says, a little wistfully. But at least he tried.