Written by David Henry Hwang
Directed by Leigh Silverman
This goofy and trifling Chicago-import is conscious of a few ideas: the modern shift in the Sino-American power dynamic, the personal sacrifices necessary for cultural change. But it's only really about one: the deeper meanings that get lost in translation, literally and not. As you might suspect from its title, Chinglish
deals with a mash up of cultures and language. In it, the head of a Cleveland-based signage company, Daniel (Gary Wilmes), tries to secure a contract from the Chinese government, navigating the complex back-channel machinations necessary for foreigners to do business in contemporary, corrupt, and quasi-capitalist China. And it milks many laughs from translation-fails both epic and minor. The play opens with a slideshow of poorly translated signage (in which, for example, the verb "to do" becomes "to fuck," regardless of context). It mocks a Chinese sign that translates "handicapped" as "deformed person" and an English-language newspaper that uses an "ancient Chinese-poetry" design that's actually advertising-copy for a strip club. Translators tweak a few words in a conversation, which creates vast differences in attitude and meaning. ("There goes a high roller" becomes "You roll the big craps.") Even the onomatopoeia requires translation.
I'm not sure if the play panders to Chinese stereotypes. Playwright David Henry Hwang has grappled with the Chinese-American experience many times over his 30 year career, and the audience on a recent evening included more Asians than you usually see at a Broadway show, most of whom laughed heartily. The jokes seem tailored especially for them, aligned with their own experience. But that might just make Hwang a Tyler Perry for ethnic Chinese; he does write in a television-influenced style, with multiple set changes, each of which spins into place on a complex rotating mechanism and has a flat surface onto which are projected supertitles. (At least a quarter of the dialogue is in Mandarin.)
Smartly, Hwang moves past the lowbrow laugh lines for something more substantial—an examination of the way language itself obscures and reveals what we mean and who we are. Daniel enters into a relationship with a Chinese national whose English is slightly better than Daniel's non-existent Chinese. He's able to reinvent himself not in spite of their language barrier but because of it; without the ability to communicate, it makes it impossible to screw up the relationship with half-truths or by saying things that shouldn't have been said. Words lie; silence doesn't. But it also makes it easier to deceive and exploit another's trust, not to mention misunderstand cultural cues: sex, for example, can mean something very different to an American man than it does to a Chinese woman. Or marriage, for that matter. But Hwang suggests that these "mistakes" are in fact truth, that we misinterpret each other not only literally but culturally—that the essence of Chinese-American relations is misunderstanding.