At the moment in David Henry Hwang's "Chinglish" when Sino-American business relations develop to the point a Chinese buyer and a U.S. seller find themselves in bed together, you get a sudden flashback to "M. Butterfly." That brilliant 23-year-old drama, which made this playwright's career, explores how Western men have long been vulnerable to the seductive mysteries of the beautiful, er, women of the East. And so, as you watch two bodies move through space in a Chinese hotel room, you first think that Hwang, America's premiere dramatic chronicler of East-West relationships, has returned to an old theme.
Indeed he has. But China has changed. And so, we come to see in this shrewd, timely and razor-sharp comedy premiering at the Goodman Theatre and logically headed to Broadway, has Hwang. The power has shifted in one direction only: East. Skyscrapers now abut opera houses. Bullet trains cut through butterfly gardens. And recession-weary American businessman are left salivating over "the greatest pool of untapped consumers history has ever known."
In "Chinglish," the provincial Chinese control their provincial American suppliant, who comes, inevitably, from Cleveland, with the pleasure that comes from reversing the flow of an aged river. But although the world of "M. Butterfly" has been turned on its head, some things, some themes, have not changed. One of Hwang's main points in "Chinglish" is that East and West still struggle to deal with each other honestly. And those games are still played at considerable cost to each of the players. A deep authorial ambivalence about the new China ripples through this play, providing it with just the nuance and complexity it needs. The Pacific, Hwang notes, as he did in 1988, is no barrier to hypocrisy.
"Chinglish," surely Hwang's best work since "M. Butterfly," gets most of its many laughs from the mistranslations that invariably accompany any attempts made by Americans and Chinese to speak with each other. These sequences, based on Hwang's own experiences, are exceedingly funny: We watch "my hands are tied" become "he is in bondage" or "travel home safely" get mangled as an instruction to "leave in haste." The Cleveland businessman (played by James Waterston with a deft mix of the bland and the earnest) is actually in the business of making signs for public buildings, which adds another level of absurdity to the amusement.
By necessity, the play is performed in Mandarin and English by a mostly bilingual cast, with subtitles projected on the set. But the savvy director Leigh Silverman makes sure that everything is crystal clear to the audience, even as the characters are lost at sea.
This is a complex comedy, involving not just the central deal for signs, but also an intermediary — Peter (Stephen Pucci), an Australian-born teacher of long Chinese residency who has reinvented himself as a business consultant but is as confused about the modus operandi of the new China as everyone else. It's the complexity of this show that makes the sync-up of Hwang's plotting and Silverman's staging so impressive: this is no simple domestic or marital situation like, say, this spring's "God of Carnage," but a multi-locale sweep throughout a provincial Chinese town (where they like to say they hate the "coastal elites"). And with only a few wobbles, and five or 10 minutes of superfluous material, the entire structure of this world premiere already hangs together very well. You never find yourself ahead of the play — which is staged on a very clever kind of interlocking set from David Korins which suggests a Chinese jigsaw it's impossible to fully solve. All this production really needs is more willingness to further confront the play's darker themes and add to the bicultural shivers. The comedy is already flying. So are the smarts.
This was, no doubt, a very tough play to cast. But the well-chosen Jennifer Lim (not to be confused with her fellow actors Angela Lin or even Christine Lin), who plays the vice minister driving the action and the deal, offers a very clever performance that catches the many sides of the current Chinese coin. Pucci's work is broader and could use some attention, not least because the character is so fascinating. If you were in China in the 1980s or early 1990s (as I once was), you doubtless met a couple of those well-cushioned expats, whose knowledge of a language opened up an entire continent of influence. Not any more. Now there are architects and lawyers who speak Mandarin themselves to clients far more likely to speak English.
The vice minister's out-of-fashion boss, deliciously played by Larry Zhang, is both funny and rather poignant. In one of the most amusing scenes, this Chinese bureaucrat caught in a whirlwind of tough-to-navigate changes launches into a frank and politically injudicious attack on the famous Chinese acrobats and expresses his desire to one day walk up to a guy who spent decades learning to balance a chair on his nose and tell him that he has, in fact, totally wasted his life.
Of course, I'm only getting that from the English translation. He might have wanted something entirely different.
When: Through July 24
Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.
Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes
Tickets: $25-$73 at 312-443-3800 or goodman theatre.org
Laughs in translation in David Henry Hwang's shrewd new 'Chinglish'
THEATER REVIEW: 'Chinglish' ★★★★
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