The comedy inherent in linguistic errors is the spark of inspiration behind Chinglish, David Henry Hwang’s new comedy, currently running on Broadway in a sharp, energetic production directed by Leigh Silverman. Hwang’s play, which takes as its cue bizarrely mistranslated Chinese signage, elicits hearty laughs – and evokes, perhaps even more profoundly, the melancholy of misunderstanding – all by depicting the foibles of international business relations.
The play’s protagonist, Daniel Cavanaugh, is the owner of Ohio Signage, a Midwestern signage company looking to change its fortune by branching out into the Chinese market. The first rule of business, we learn, is to find one’s own translator, and Cavanaugh finds his in the form of Peter Timms, a bilingual British consultant who lives in Guiyang, a city that Cavanaugh has chosen as his first target because of its relative obscurity.
Peter attempts to help Cavanaugh seal a deal with Minister Cai, a local official who has the power to commission Ohio Signage to provide translated signs for the city’s new arts complex – a service that Cavanaugh suggests is sorely needed after some embarrassing signs pulled focus from a neighboring city’s arts programming.
Much fun is had by making light of the differences between Peter’s sensible translations and the minister’s daughter’s own clumsier take on the conversation. The machinations of this signage deal fuel the remainder of the play. Minister Cai’s beautiful and mysterious vice-secretary, Madame Xi, doubts the plan early on but soon finds herself entangled with Cavanaugh, whose true motivations for coming to China are revealed in due course.
In Chinglish, you see, the Chinese concept of quanxi features heavily. Quanxi, one of the pillars of Eastern business relations, is the notion that positive personal relationships can inform one’s business dealings. As Cavanaugh and Madame Xi form a deeper connection, the tidiness of their quanxi is disturbed. The play reaches its climax when these two unlikely bedfellows are faced with the realities of their situations not only as businesspeople but as emotional creatures.
Much of this realization comes in the wake of the irreconcilable barriers between Cavanaugh’s out-in-the-open American upbringing and Madame Xi’s hardened view of life and marriage – a divide that’s only heightened by their linguistic differences.
A good percentage of Chinglish is spoken in Chinese and translated via surtitles projected on the set (because the playwright is not bilingual himself, this means that Mandarin Chinese translations were needed to pull off Hwang’s lithely orchestrated clash of cultures). Rather than serving to isolate an audience, this device puts an audience in the uniquely intoxicating place of understanding each line of dialogue while simultaneously comprehending the weight of various characters’ disconnects.
Much of the success of the play can be attributed to Leigh Silverman’s brisk direction; she uses scenic designer David Korins’ intricately fluid set, moving the play’s characters seamlessly between the meeting room and the bedroom to great effect.
The play is brought to life by a fine cast, particularly Gary Wilmes as the not-so-smooth Cavanaugh and Jennifer Lim – who’s a standout as the cunning Madame Xi, hilarious in spite of the fact that a healthy percentage of her lines are in Chinese. Those of the actors who speak primarily Chinese throughout make evident the extent to which acting – and comedy – can translate beyond language barriers; it’s truly an all-around funny group.
One of the beauties of Chinglish is that the conversations we know are truly understood by both parties are those featuring the simplest of words and phrases, selected for their effectiveness in concise communication. Beyond that, our protagonists declaim their individual longings to themselves (particularly in a heartbreakingly lyrical postcoital moment for Madame Xi).
As an audience, it’s heartbreaking to know these private moments can never be understood between lovers – only by the speaker and the audience. It’s a truly thrilling theatrical device that allows for wise revelations of character as adeptly as it facilitates the humor of the play.
Read the Exeunt interview with David Henry Hwang.