|Photo courtesy of kevinberne.com|
Like its title, David Henry Hwang's comedy "Chinglish" is two things, in this case different styles of theater, smashed together to create a hybrid. Language, and the reading of it, are odd things. Suppose the name of the play, and the slang term for the mistranslations it represents, was "Englese" instead. It's almost the same thing, practically speaking- one syllable of the word "Chinese" and slightly more than one from "English." But obviously, though for no good reason, they aren't synonymous are they? It needs to be "Chinglish" for the word to make any sense because that removes possible questions that the play has something to do with Portuguese (or any other "-ese" for that matter). Yet no one would mistake the title for being about Chicagoans and their dialect, would they? Somehow we just know these things intuitively. I'm sure there's an explanation for that weird linguistic intuition, but I don't know what it is.
It's odd too, that Hwang seems to know that for most audiences a love story thwarted by a cultural divide would play better wrapped within a farce on the etiquette of doing business in contemporary China. However there are some problems with that approach, which I would wager will make "Chinglish" a comedy of the moment that could have been more timeless with a different approach. Right now, an American businessman seeking to make money from the common practice of mistranslating Chinese to English and vice versa seems apropos and timely, but in twenty years, and more likely in ten, it will come across as dated as having a protagonist who sells VHS players or eight-track tapes. That market just won't exist and the jokes, which now get big laughs from the audience, will come across differently. It wouldn't surprise me at all if the jokes which now provoke laughter will eventually produce cringes at some point in the future, because the the audience is laughing at the differences between cultures, not their commonalities, and it is the ability to create humor from the latter which makes comedies endure. Think of how Mickey Rooney's appearance in Breakfast at Tiffany's has come to been seen in retrospect.
The overly-long first act is almost non-stop jokes based on mistranslations and a set-up for the misunderstandings which dominate the second. The main characters are introduced- Daniel Cavanaugh (Alex Moggridge) is an Ohio businessman on a trip to the "small" city of Guiyang (population 4 million) hoping to land a deal for his company to provide more accurate signage for visitors to a new cultural center. He enlists the help of Peter (Brian Nishii), an expat teacher of English turned "consultant," to help him navigate the foreign terrain and provide translation skills. Cavanaugh and Peter meet with Minister Cai (Larry Lei Zhang), who's in charge of the culture center, and his assistant, Xi Yan (Michelle Kruseic). The Minister is all smiles and Peter seems like he's in control of the negotiations, leading Cavanaugh to feel like he's getting to "yes," even while Xi's demeanor signals "no." Between the two factions sits Miss Quan (Celeste Qian) and Bing (Austin Ku) as the local translators, both of whom have limitations and biases which make for some pretty decent laughs. Director Leigh Silverman keeps the first act zinging along at a single, unvarying pitch that starts high and becomes almost shrill after an hour, exacerbated by the Chinese pop music that blasts (seriously, it's way too loud) between each in scene. That relentless pitch prevents the characters from revealing any depth, though Kruesic does a good job at piquing our interest in discerning her motives and the entire cast has superb delivery. The first act is funny and brash, but in the end feels superficial. Another act full of more of the same wasn't something I was especially looking forward to sitting through.
Thankfully, I didn't have to do that.
The second act is almost the obverse of the first. That all of the principals have hidden agendas and secrets should come as little surprise, but as they are revealed and unraveled in these quieter, often softly spoken scenes (and in a dazzling stage design by David Korins), "Chinglish" starts to have something genuinely interesting and poignant to say about its two cultures clashing onstage. Without giving away major plot points, we are soon watching Xi and Cavanaugh conduct business on a much more personal level. The insight and depth absent in the first act shows up with some exquisitely written and subtly rendered moments in the second. Krusiec's character morphs from borderline Dragon Lady stereotype into a multi-faceted, complex woman grappling with some real conflicts. Moggridge achieves a similar, if not nearly as interesting, transformation as his own backstory is revealed (in another very funny scene that probably won't age well). That the rest of Hwang's characters don't receive the same depth of revelation is a missed opportunity, but what happens between Xi and Cavanaugh feels like the heart of the play and is its most satisfying element.
If the first act seems like an extended Saturday Night Live skit, the second has several scenes of satisfying sophistication. Mistranslations that the Chinese see as embarrassing to their public image on the world stage give way to the personal impacts of private miscommunication and misunderstandings. I'd like to think this is by design, but the two halves aren't given equal measure (or time), and the entirety of the play seems pitched from that first half, even if its obvious Hwang has more interesting things to say in its second. "Chinglish" would be more satisfying if it held the two aspects of the cultures it portrays in greater balance, rendering the business side of dealing with foreign cultures as ably as it does the personal as seen by its two protagonists. As it is, that lack of balance ultimately makes it like a once-ubiquitous aphorism one use to hear about Chinese food that isn't repeated much anymore.
"Chinglish," will be at Berkeley Rep's Roda Theatre through October 21st. Tickets start at $29, with substantial discounts available for students, groups, seniors, and those under 30. Call (510) 647-2949 or buy them online at berkeleyrep.org. The production travels to South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa from January 25 - February 24, 2013, and then on to the Hong Kong Arts Festival March 1-6, 2013.