“I gotta use words when I talk to you,” said T.S. Eliot’s Sweeney Agonistes. As a translator myself, I know what he was agonizing about. Words, like people, don’t always mean exactly what they say. Even when you think you’ve captured their sense, a darker surprise emerges: Another person’s idea of that sense will not be the same as yours. That dark underpinning is the bottom layer of David Henry Hwang’s Ch’inglish (Longacre Theatre), a sly, funny, multi-tiered joke with a laugh-out-loud surface that conceals a movingly somber aftertaste.
Hwang’s hapless hero, Daniel Cavanaugh (Gary Wilmes), runs a small sign company in Cleveland that hopes to expand its marketing to China, where native companies supplying the signage for big institutions have been plagued by un-savvy translators, whose mishaps include rendering “handicapped restroom” as “deformed man’s toilet.” Cavanaugh has targeted Guiyang, a medium-sized city about to open a huge cultural center, where he runs up against the city’s minister of culture, Cai (Larry Lei Zhang), who seems sympathetic, and the sharp-edged vice minister, Xi Yan (Jennifer Lim), who appears distinctly hostile.
Appearances, as ever, are deceiving. Once the obvious mistranslations (clarified for us in supertitles) have been cleared away, the cultural bureaucrats’ conflicting attitudes turn out to mask a rats’ nest of intrigues, rivalries, and family entanglements that leaves Daniel increasingly disoriented. Even Peter (Stephen Pucci), the British expat he has hired to guide him through the maze, tosses a few hidden-agenda items of his own onto the dizzying mental whirligig. Rebuff somehow becomes a form of encouragement, disaster miraculously transforms into success, and even love, most disorientingly, can be a key piece in the jigsaw puzzle of international business dealings.
Subtly, Hwang links the multiple levels of misunderstanding to one another, making the piece a comic paradigm of what can happen when cultures collide. Yet simultaneously, in his most mordant twist, he turns the paradigm inside out, revealing its unexpected tragic aspect: However much cultures differ superficially, when big business gets involved, all cultures are equal in their fiscal fakery, evasion, and double-dealing, while ordinary folk everywhere get rooked.
The evening’s prologue shows Daniel, several years after the play’s events, addressing a group of Ohio businessmen: He refers to the Chinese masses as “peasants” and then corrects the word (translating English into English!) to “consumers.” The subsequent grimly comic variants on this joke include a Chinese bureaucrat’s wisecrack about sending an inadequate translator “to a re-education camp” and a string of gibes, late in the piece, about Enron as a business model. While having joyous fun with our current socioeconomic climate, Ch’inglish has the wisdom to know at whose expense that climate has been created, even while focusing on those who reap its benefits.
Hwang makes one dramaturgical misstep, allowing the action to pivot on the misbehavior, in a public situation, of a character whom you would expect to be well aware that such missteps are out of bounds in China, where loss of “face” can cause irrecoverable damage. The lapse has its textual justifications, but still can’t help seeming like a convenient way to roll the play toward its climax.
And roll it indeed does, in Leigh Silverman’s speedy, high-style production, particularly thanks to the twin turntables of David Korins’s set, used to create an atmosphere, during scene changes, that blends Kafka creepiness with sassy urban comedy. Backed by Brian MacDevitt’s spooky lighting and Darron L. West’s astute fusion of Chinese, Western, electronic, and pop sounds, these shifting panoramas add yet another layer to the play’s delicious dislocations.
Within the comic sleekness, Silverman too makes one slight misstep, encouraging Wilmes, whose Off-Broadway work has always shown strong, assertive definition, to downplay Daniel until the character’s diffidence begins to approach disappearance. A little more feistiness would improve matters, since his colleagues supply plenty for him to stand up to. Lim, a supple and endearing bundle of soft yearnings and harsh angles, walks away with the evening’s honors, followed closely by Zhang, his beaming bonhomie never quite hiding the dark clouds of doubt that dog his character. His ambiguity, like Ch’inglish‘s own, is clearly not Occidental.