Tony winner David Henry Hwang (M. Butterfly) once again sets his sights on the seductive yet complex relationship between the West and China with his play Chinglish, in which a businessman goes to Guiyang to score a lucrative contract and finds that the dotted line might be a little blurry when you’re far from home.
The comedy intricately deals with miscommunication, both intentional and accidental, as the two sides work out a deal while gradually revealing their hidden agendas, all with the help of translators who sometimes obfuscate things even further.
Subtitles projected onto the extremely versatile sets are seamlessly used to translate what’s being said, whether the characters are spewing slanted interpretations or honest mistakes. (“I direct all our operations” somehow becomes “He is also a surgeon,” to name one of many examples.)
Two hilarious scenes emerge — one in which the Chinese are thrilled to meet someone who worked for Enron because of how fabulously famous that whole scandal was, and another in which the businessman (played rather blandly by Gary Wilmes) romances the vice minister (a superbly funny Jennifer Lim) while sputtering a series of sexy malaprops that are accurately translated as “dust” and “The frog is peeing.”
There’s a lot of talk in Chinglish, and keeping up with it, while always looking to the subtitles, makes for a challenging evening.
But it’s refreshing to see a play that’s so willing to communicate the truth about the potential trickiness involved in cross-cultural communication.