Monday, July 18, 2011

"Chinglish": A Smart Offering at the Goodman Theater, and Bound For Broadway!

"Chinglish", which has become so popular in Chicago that its run has been extended here, is the fourth and final event in our season series at the Goodman Theater. This smart and timely play came with an excellent pedigree, and was the freshest, most thought-provoking and funniest play in the series.  It's no wonder that "Chinglish" is on its way to a Broadway opening in the Fall.

Playwright David Henry Hwang has created a multi-layered, sexy and cynical work that looks at our global marketplace, specifically American-Chinese business relations, as represented by a naive Ohio businessman who wants to sign a lucrative contract for his sign-making company with a savvy and attractive Chinese businesswoman.  The initial, hilarious mis-translation and social faux-pas committed on both sides soon becomes a spellbinding comic romance between two lovers, whose bedroom revelations and misunderstandings effectively describe the tricky one-upsmanship and intrigue of doing business across insurmountable cultural obstacles.

Hwang has had huge success on and off Broadway, writing about Chinese and American culture and the often uneasy mixture of the two mindsets.  His best-known works include the book of the 2002 revival of "Flower Drum Song", the fact-based gender-bender and Tony-winner "M. Butterfly" (1988), and the Obie-Award winners "Golden Child", "Yellow Face", and "FOB".

The title "Chinglish" refers to mistaken translations between the Chinese and Enlish languages, and the often hilarious mishaps when badly-skilled translators muddle things even more. A simple English statement such as "Ours is a family-run business" can become, in translation, "His business is small and insignificant."  A constant barrage of sur-titles keeps the laughs coming as even more outrageous errors build to a crescendo of misunderstanding.

James Waterston (Sam is his Father) brings a lanky and likable presence to the naive Daniel, an American who is shocked to discover that it could take weeks, instead of days, to cinch a contract to create the signage for a Chinese Cultural Center, and who, at the end of Act One, drops a surprising bit of information that leads to a delicious and equally surprising second-act interview. 

His Australian translator, Peter, played by the awesome British stage actor Stephen Pucci, delivers to Daniel--and the audience--a nicely written crash-course on the Chinese concept of "guanxi", which can be best defined in one English word:  "patronage".  Guanxi is so pervasive in Chinese life and business that it corrupts almost all transactions and relationships. 

Jennifer Lim, who is getting raves for this role, plays Xu Yan, the ball-busting official who nevertheless finds something about Daniel worthy of consideration. Slowly, her real motivation fades into view, one that seems sly and self-serving, until one has some understanding of her outlook, a different way of thinking that is foreign to many Americans.

The play is excellent in providing audiences with the information necessary to understand some of the subtleties of Chinese written characters, the spoken inflections that can give one word wildly different meanings, and a divergent cultural mindset. The play gives us a lot of fascinating information and does so amusingly, so that, as the sur-titles come rapidly and the complications of the story grow exponentially, we are squarely inside the story and appreciate the characters behavior from all points of view.  There are no heroes or villains (except, maybe, the crooks of the now-defunct Enron, who happen to figure in the plot). 

One of the more brilliant scenes in the play has Xu Yan explaining to Daniel, who declares his love for her and his intention to divorce his wife, a startling concept about infidelity: she sees her "escape" with Daniel as a way to keep her sane in her partnership with her husband.  More than anything else, this complex but clearly stated monologue allows the audience a clear focus on why, in order to succeed in business, it may be necessary to delve deeper into a culture than we ever imagined.

The cast is brilliant, especially Pucci, who becomes a somewhat tragic figure when his "guanxi" comes back to haunt him.  He is a fine translator, but learns too late that the language alone is only part of the delivery of meaning.  Pucci speaks mandarin (to my ears) flawlessly, and strikes a delightfully authentic pose as he joins another official in a bit from a popular Chinese musical number. 

Lim is amazing in a role that requires a believable clipped broken English and also a flawless fluency in Chinese.  I have heard that the actress is fully American, and in interviews appears much younger than her character in the play. (There are already some whispers of Tony glory for her in this role).

And Waterston, to me, was spellbinding.  Easy to look at for sure, he was also terrific as a nice guy who learns some hard lessons, and maintains his easy veneer even as he becomes a hard businessman with the glad hand and insincere smile.  The play drips cynicism at the end and Waterston walked the fine line well.

This is a marvelous production in every department, from the brisk and intelligent writing, to the amazing characterizations, from the energetic direction to the revolving sets and percussive music. Until I understood its scheme and rhythms, the opening scene between Daniel and Peter threatened to make the play feel static. After a few minutes however, after Peter's initial explanatory lecture is finished, the whole thing takes off.

It's a great mixture; global business, the emergence of China as an economic super-dragon, clandestine love as a microcosm for cultural misunderstanding, the betrayal when one's skill no longer being impressive in the marketplace, the importance of language driven home with big laughs, even the bashing of Chinese acrobats..."Chinglish" is play I wish I had written myself, and one that has given me the inspiration to find the thing I know best, and, like "Chinglish" does, impart that knowledge in a wholly original and terrific, entertaining fashion.

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