nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 2, 2011
David Henry Hwang's new play on Broadway, Chinglish, explores the imprecision of language and the difficulty of communication. In it, an American businessman named Daniel Cavanaugh journeys to China in hopes of getting a lucrative contract providing signage at a new cultural center in the relatively small-sized city of Guiyang. (Guiyang is a real place with a population of 4 million; the Chinese characters in the play are the ones who say it's small, pointing up just one example of Hwang's thesis).
The play pivots around one repeated joke, wherein people say something in either English or Chinese and then a translator misinterprets, in a humorous or outrageous way, what has been said. (Presumably accurate translations of the Chinese are provided in projected titles on the stage.) This device is used so much that the play starts to feel like a sitcom, offering audiences a conditioned and rather passive mechanism for laughter. Which is a shame, because Chinglish has more on its mind than that: my reaction to it, after trying to eliminate my distaste for the noise that this gimmick adds to the piece, is very complicated.
Daniel hires a "consultant" named Peter Timms to help him cultivate his business interests in China; Peter is quickly revealed to be not so much a consultant as an ambitious young man who wants to be a consultant. The Minister of Culture in Guiyang behaves in his first meeting with Daniel in the stereotyped Chinese way we expect, all politeness and inscrutability, while his female Vice-Minister, Xi Yan, plays more of a "bad cop." But none of our first impressions of these people—Daniel included—turns out to be reliable. Everyone in Chinglish has an agenda. The surface idea that language can inadvertently mask true intention is subverted: language, with other tools, is revealed to be a way to deliberately obfuscate intention.
A very funny climactic scene in Act Two plays further with our assumptions about meaning and expectation, while a romance between Xi Yan and Daniel messes with our pre-conceived notions about what kind of play this even is. When Chinglish was over, it occurred me that my cultural conditioning as an American and a Westerner pushed me to judge the people on stage (and that conditioning plus my own biases led me to "like" Daniel the most, despite some substantial flaws in his character). I suspect that a Chinese may not feel so compelled to judge, however. And that feels, finally, like Hwang's point: it's not just language that's a barrier between people, but something deeper that's rooted in our ancestry, environment, and cultural ethos.
Chinglish is a provocative but uneven work that has been given a mounting that's probably more sumptuous than required—perhaps to help explain to people why it's worth more than a hundred bucks for a ticket. David Korins's set, with panels and furniture sliding in and out like parts of a theme park ride, ultimately distracts from the play, as does Leigh Silverman's slowed-down pacing (transitions are lengthy to accommodate the complex set). Jennifer Lim as Xi Yan, Stanley Pucci as Peter, and Larry Lei Zhang as Minister Cai give the strongest performances in an ensemble (uncharacteristically for Broadway nowadays) devoid of film or TV stars.