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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
CHINGLISH
at the Longacre

CULTURE CLASH
By MATT WINDMAN

  Stephen Pucci and Jennifer Lim/ Ph: Michael McCabe

How American perceptions of China have changed since M. Butterfly, David Henry Hwang’s 1988 Pulitzer-winning drama about an American diplomat hopelessly obsessed with old-fashioned visions of beautiful oriental women, who gets seduced and deceived by an opera star just prior to the ascendance of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. In Hwang’s new comedy, Chinglish, which is set in the present day, China is viewed not as a place of exotic beauty, or a setting for Puccini operas, but genuine economic opportunity, especially when it is lacking here at home.

The protagonist now is David Cavanaugh (played convincingly by Gary Wilmes), an American businessman in China trying desperately to win a contract to make the signs for a new arts center. In an early scene, he points out to government officials how another theater was marred by inadequate translations on its signs. For instance, the company’s sign for handicap bathrooms read in Mandarin as “Deformed Man’s Toilet.”

But Cavanaugh’s attempt to be persuasive is thwarted by another interpreter’s unsuccessful translations from English into Mandarin. For instance, when Cavanaugh claims that his business is a small family firm, it is interpreted by a young female translator as “his company is tiny and insignificant.”

Whenever dialogue is spoken in Mandarin, which accounts for about a third of the play, English translations are displayed with supertitles. The play’s best scenes, in which Hwang pinpoints the difficulty of conveying nuances and second meanings in the course of translation, are absolutely and blissfully riotous.

Another thoroughly hilarious portion depicts Chinese officials treating Cavanaugh like a celebrity when they learn that he was a major player in the Enron scandal. They even ask him for gossip about Jeffrey Skilling, Kenneth Lay and the other company execs.

The other half of the play, depicting Cavanaugh’s uneasy, often deceptive relationships with his Mandarin-speaking Australian translator and a Chinese official with whom he has an affair, is far less captivating.
 
The show’s flashback structure, which frames the play as Cavanaugh’s reminiscing during the course of a business seminar, is unnecessary.

Leigh Silverman’s high-speed, very well-acted production was originally expected to play Off-Broadway’s Public Theater but was unexpectedly bumped up to a Broadway bow. It features a complicated set design that twists and turns in two directions at once as the scenes change.

Even if the subplots come across as hackneyed, it can’t be denied that Hwang has once again spotlighted culture clash in a most compelling way. And how often do you see a show with a mostly bilingual cast?

 


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