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A CurtainUp Review

David Henry Hwang's Comic Take on Cross Cultural Boardroom and Bedroom Liaisons Lands On Broadway with its Bi-Lingual Cast Intact

Iíve been asked to talk today about doing business in China. The greatest pool of untapped consumers history has ever known. People ask me, how did I manage to get a foothold there? Well, the truth is, when I started out, I knew nothing more about China than the difference between Moo Shoo Pork and General Tsoís Chicken. The first rule of doing business in China is also the last. . . When doing business in China, always bring your own translator.
Daniel Cavanaugh in the presentation that bookends the play.
Jennifer Lim and Gary Wilmes
Ask anyone to name an Asian-American playwright, and the answer is likely to be David Henry Hwang. His best-known play, M. Butterfly not only nabbed Tony Award, the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards but was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, as was the lesser-known The Dance and the Railroad (Both pre-date Curtainup's birth). Though born and raised in Los Angeles and educated at the Yale School of Drama, Hwang is widely regarded as this country's foremost Asian-American playwright.

Though Golden Child made it to Broadway it was only mildly successful. In short, nothing has matched the spectacular success of M. Butterfly. Yet Hwang has continued to be a playwright to whom attention should be, and is, paid not only because he writes well but because he's gutsy enough to revisit failures that other playwrights would be happy to leave buried. Case in point: His last New York production Yellow Face not only returned to his controversial brouhaha over the casting of a white actor, Jonathan Pryce, as the lead in Miss Saigon, but also to his dead on arrival Face Value, If nothing else, Chinglish once again proves Hwang's gutsiness since at least half of it is in Mandarin. But not to worry on that score. With the playwright's Yellow Face collaborator Leigh Silverman at the helm, the audience at the Longacre will know exactly what's going on. In fact, the super titles used to keep them from getting lost in the linguistic morass turn out be what gives Chinglish it's comic edge.

As Yellow Face revisited a play most playwrights would be happy to leave buried and forgotten, so Chinglish is also a revisit-- in this case to the M. Butterfly theme but with a decidedly contemporary spin and a comedic twist: The falseness and mis-communication in culture-crossing relationships. In Chinglish that theme is played out in the boardroom as well as the bedroom.

Since Chinglish has transferred to Broadway intact in terms of director, design team and everyone in the cast except the Midwestern businessman Daniel Cavanaugh, and my own take on it puts me pretty much on the same page as our Chicago critic Larry Bommer. Consequently, this review will add just a few comments on the transfer and then wnd up with a click to the original review -- Original Chicago Production Review.

David Korins' gliding and swiveling sets are again a major asset -- in fact, if ever a set came close to stealing the show this is it. The adroitly on target locales include a hotel lobby complete with elevator and revolving door.

Gary Wilmes, who was a standout in the Elevator Repair Service's epic Gatz is just right as the American trying to navigate the strange and confusing language and customs of the country which turns out to be his desperate last ditch effort to rise from economic ruin. Yes, indeed, this is a comedy with more than laughs on its mind with this not so innocent American a symbol of his entire country -- even though the sum of its parts is more what Larry called a charming if half-baked confection about the comic and serious fallout of faulty translation.

While all the original bi-lingual characters continue to deliver their misinterpretations with panache, Jennifer Lim is not only the standout but actually the play's most interesting and complex character-- a new Chinese woman who knows how to navigate the slippery slope of traditional mores with both feet firmly planted in the present. Also terrific is Stephen Pucci as Peter Timms, the only other non-Chinese character. As the Englishman who's been in China for 19 years who brings his own less than fully revealed past to his job as Daniel's guide in "Guanxi" for bullding successful global relationships, he reminds one of the characters in Somerset Maugham's once best-selling short stories and novels about far from home Brits.

Daniel's lectures about his experience in Guiyang, China neatly bookend the expertly and entertainingly crafted and staged play, but I agree with Larry that these scenes underscore the play's ultimate weakness: Great style, but not quite enough substance.

Broadway Production Notes Chinglish by David Henry Hwang
Directed by Leigh Silverman
Cast: Garry Wilmes (Daniel) Stephen Pucci (Peter), Jennifer Lim (Xu Yan), Larry Zhang (Cai Guoliang), Christine Lin (Mrs. Zhao), Angela Lin (Miss Qian/Prosecutor Li), and Johnny Wu (Judge Xu Geming/ Bing)
Set Designer: David Korins.
Costume Designer: Anita Yavich.
Lighting Designer: Brian MacDevitt.
Sound Design: Darron West
Projections: Jeff Sugg
Stage Manager: Stephen M. Kaus
Running Time: 2 hours with intermission
Longacre Theatre 220 West 48th Street
From 10/11/11; opening 10/27/11
Closing 1/29/12
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer November 1st
Click here for the Original Chicago Production Review.

The Original Chicago Review by Larry Bommer

Chinglish is a charming if half-baked confection about the dangers of faulty translation--between languages or lovers. The latter are a desperate American entrepreneur trying to sell English signage to a cultural center in the mid-sized (4 million) provincial capital of Guiyang, China and the ambitious vice-minister who has her own agenda for bedding him and securing the lucrative contract.

Like the film Lost in Translation (which uses its Japanese setting to convey cultural isolation as well as the mixed messages that complicate relationships and contracts), Chinglish employs super titles rather than subtitles to deliver the "double takes" of minor and major misunderstandings. Coming fast and furious, these instantly illustrate the treacherous tricks that happen when idioms get mistranslated, either too literally or too abstractly. Almost half the play is in Mandarin Chinese: The comedy is not fooling around when it comes to impersonating culture shock.

Daniel Cavanaugh (bumptious James Waterston), a casualty of the Enron scandal, is hoping to recoup his losses by giving his Ohio sign-making company a new lease on life— in a very distant market. He seeks help from a volatile Australian émigré (Stephen Pucci), who can translate well but can't hold his tongue when dealing with the Chinese officials' courteous deceptions and elaborate double talk. Daniel thinks he's found a more reliable ally in Xu Yuan (Jennifer Lim, subtle and sprightly), a mid-level government flunky whose idea of adultery is as much a negotiation as any business deal. All but inscrutable, she's got designs against her boss Cai Guoliang (a minister of culture embroiled in nepotism and influence peddling). So, even more than in the U.S., in this hot-house world of intrigue that passes as Guiyang, the personal is the political and all's fair in love and networking.

Goodman's fast-moving, two-hour debut features dazzling revolving sets by David Korins that deliver instant and cunning locales, claustrophobically lit by Brian MacDevitt. These along with very slick work in two languages from a deft, cross-cultural cast keep this more than just an extended joke about funny English signs in Chinese hotels.

I had a problem with the play's pull-out-the-plug ending: Its abrupt and even desperate resolution suggests that Hwang doesn't know how to sort out his tangle of foreign mis-relations. He uses the opening and closing scenes — -depictions of Daniel's Powerpoint presentation on the difficulties of conducting business abroad —-as a cop out as much as a framing device. We need a bit more closure than a giant theatrical shrug indicating "Well, you never know, do you, folks!"

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