Review: Chinglish (Goodman Theatre)

| June 29, 2011

A charming if half-baked confection



Goodman Theatre presents
Written by David Henry Hwang 
Directed by Leigh Silverman
at Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn (map)
through July 24  |  tickets: $25-$73  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Two-time Pultizer Prize finalist David Henry Hwang is already well represented in Chicago–with Silk Road Theatre Project’s successful revival of Yellow Face (our review), a satirical fantasy about the perils of non-traditional casting and racial stereotypes. Now comes Goodman Theatre’s equally playful world premiere: 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 much better to convey cultural isolation as well as the mixed messages that complicate relationships and contracts), “Chinglish” employs supertitles 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.

Continuing Hwang’s collaboration with Leigh Silverman (who staged the original “Yellow Face”), 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.

The problem is 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!”

Rating: ★★★

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Category: 2011 Reviews, Goodman Theatre, Lawrence Bommer, Now Playing, World Premier

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