“East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet” … because if so, complications will surely ensue as they do in David Henry Hwang’s hilarious (and eye-opening) Chinglish, freshly arrived at South Coast Repertory from Berkeley Rep with its entire creative team and virtually its entire cast intact.
“To take notice of safe: The slippery are very crafty.” (=Slippery Slopes Ahead) “Financial Affairs Is Everywhere Long.” (=Chief Financial Officer) “Fuck the Certain Price of Goods.” (=Dry Goods Pricing Department)
Anyone who’s ever seen a foreign language translated into pseudo-English will smile knowingly at the “Chinglish” signs our American hero Daniel Cavanaugh (Alex Moggridge) shows us in the play’s prologue, one which has Daniel warning assembled members of the Commerce League Of Ohio, “When doing business in China, always bring your own translator.”
This is but one of the lessons learned by Daniel three years earlier when first visiting China in hopes of his family-run company, Ohio Signage, getting the government contract to provide bilingual signs for a world-class Arts Center in the southwest Chinese city of Guiyang. Longtime English expatriate Peter Timms (Brian Nishii) cautions Daniel that in China, “business is built on relationships,” aka guanxi, and that the American’s planned one-week trip to China had better be extended to at least eight. And as for tooting Daniel’s own horn American-style, Peter’s advice is: “Criticize yourself, but make sure there’s someone else in the room who will contradict you—ideally, at great length.”
The truth of all of the above becomes abundantly clear in Daniel’s first meeting with Minister Cai Guoliang (Raymond Ma) and Vice Minister Xi Yan (Michelle Krusiec), one in which interpreter Miss Qian (Celeste Den) takes Daniel’s “We’re a small family firm” and renders it “His company is tiny and insignificant,” or when Daniel assures the ministers that Ohio Signage is worth the cost, words Miss Qian translates as, “He will explain why he spends money so recklessly.”
As for how we in the audience can understand what these Chinese speakers are saying given Daniel’s assessment that “if you are an American, it is … safe to assume that you do not speak a single fucking foreign language,” Chinglish’s many long chunks of Chinese dialog are translated into easy-to-see English language supertitles.
With the incompetent Miss Qian sent away to a reeducation camp, Xi sets up a private meeting with Daniel during which she struggles to understand his English without aid of a translator, a feat which proves every bit as difficult as the American’s attempts to piece together Xi’s broken English. By the end of this meeting, two things have become clear to Daniel: first, that if things go the way they appear to be doing, there will be no deal with the Chinese, and second, that the beautiful if rather severe Xi is a woman he would like to know better.
As it turns out, Daniel and Xi do get to know each other, not only better but in the Biblical sense, the first of many complications on the twisty-turny road ahead to Chinglish’s three-years-later epilogue, a continuation of the opening scene which we now view with considerably wiser eyes than at the play’s outset.
Among the lessons Daniel (and we) learn along the way is that even bringing along your own first-rate interpreter will not help all that much in understanding the cultural differences that separate the U.S. and China. Take, for instance, the Chinese characters’ reaction to the Enron scandal (I won’t give away why this topic arises) in a scene that is one of the play’s funniest—and most edifying.
Another lesson we learn, or perhaps are simply reminded of, is that surface impressions can lie, because if you think your first and even second impressions of Hwang’s characters are spot-on, be prepared to think again, since virtually nobody in Chinglish is who we initially believe them to be, nor for that matter who they say they are.
Hwang’s play is not quite a perfect one. Scenes in which Xi breaks the fourth wall seem out of place. Translating what Daniel cannot understand is one thing, but should we really be seeing inside Xi’s head as these scenes have us do?
Still, quite a play Chinglish is, and eminently worthy of the two Joseph Jefferson Awards it received in its World Premiere Chicago run (including a statuette to Hwang for New Work) before its Broadway debut last year.
Though no one repeats from the Broadway production, it’s hard to imagine their topping the cast now stopping in Costa Mesa on their way from Berkeley to Hong Kong, Leigh Silverman now sharing directorial duties with associate director Oanh X. Nguyen, esteemed Artistic Director of the OC’s very own Chance Theater.
As Daniel, the marvelous Moggridge has just the right corn-fed look and open-hearted manner to play your average, everyday American businessman-next-door, one who has apparently grown up on fairy tale/romcom happy endings, and Krusiec is equally terrific as a modern Chinese woman who looks at love and marriage as two entirely different matters, a tightly-wound government minister who does considerably more than let down her hair in the bedroom. A scene between Daniel and Xi in which the American makes one bumbling attempt to say “I love you” in Chinese after another (“My fifth aunt” “Dirty sea mud” “Frog loves to pee”) is not only one of the play’s funniest, it proves that language mangling goes both ways.
Ma is so authentic as Minister Cai that it’s hard to believe he’s a thirty-year stage and screen vet and not someone plucked from the Chinese government and deposited on the South Coast Rep stage, the sole cast member not repeating from Berkeley Rep.
Nishii’s Peter is another fascinatingly rendered character, the Asian-American actor quite convincing as a native-born Brit, the slight hint of “foreignness” in his English accent precisely what one might expect from a man who’s spent virtually his entire adult life in China. (Nishi’s Chinese appears to these untrained ears to be spot-on as well.)
A trio of actors appear in multiple roles to impressive effect. Best of the bunch is Den, having a field day as the gauchest (and most gung ho) interpreter imaginable, and later as the sharp-as-her-spike-heels Prosecutor Li. Austin Ku is a hoot as a particularly inept twink interpreter with family connections and an all-business Judge (who like just about everyone else may surprise you with his own family ties). Vivian Chiu spends most of the play doing “background work” along with several of her fellow players till a terrific Act Two turn as the enthusiastic still not quite right-on interpreter Zhao.
And if all of the above weren’t reason enough not to miss Chinglish, then David Korins’ extraordinary scenic design is almost worth the price of admission, an asymmetrical Chinese puzzle that keeps on unfolding in the most astounding of ways from hotel lobby to restaurant to government office to hotel room and back again. Korins’ Jefferson Award winning set is so attention-grabbing that you might not even notice how expert Brian MacDevitt’s lighting design, Nancy A. Palmatier’s costume design (based on Anita Yavich’s original design), and Darron L West’s sound design are. (West also composed the jazzy, dramatic musical score that links the scenes during Korins’ set-bending scene changes.)
Others deserving kudos are Jeff Sugg and Shawn Duan for their projection design and Candace Chong for her Mandarin Chinese translations. Joshua Marchesi is production manager and Maichael Suenkel stage manager.
Playwright Hwang won the 1988 Tony Award for his fact-based examination of the relationship between a French diplomat and a Peking Opera singer who convinced him for twenty years that he was a she. If Chinglish ends up a whole lot funnier (and ultimately more optimistic) than Hwang’s earlier play, it is every bit as fascinating an exploration of East vs. West and just how difficult it is for the twain to ever really meet. Think of it as M. Butterfly for the 21st Century.
South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.
February 5, 2013
Photos: Henry DiRocco/SCR except top photo by Kevin Berne