Daniel Cavanaugh (Gary Wilmes), chief executive of Ohio Signage, wants to land a contract with a Chinese ministry in the city of Guiyang, where a new cultural center is being built. Citing genuine examples, he notes that China’s bustling leaders should find it unacceptable that a bilingual sign for a handicapped restroom should read “Deformed Man Toilet” in English. Or that foreigners should have to puzzle out for themselves that a plaque on a door reading “Financial Affairs Is Everywhere Long” is meant to say “Chief Financial Officer.” His prospective clients in Guiyang nod in agreement, but for Daniel, the seemingly simple path to reaching a deal turns out to be just as twisted as the translations.
This is David Henry Hwang’s new play Chinglish, which had its Broadway premiere last month. It features plenty of comically bungled translations like those, of the sort familiar to language professionals — the theater’s supertitles, for example, reveal that a tone-deaf attempt at repeating the Mandarin for “I love you” can sound like “Dirty sea mud.” The real point that veteran playwright Hwang is striving for, though, is about overconfidence in one’s ability to effectively traverse cultural and even interpersonal borders through communication. Daniel has lined up a meeting with the bustling town’s culture minister (Larry Lei Zhang), and a British expatriate with perfect Mandarin skills (Stephen Pucci) to serve as consultant and interpreter during his sales pitch. Act humble and bow the right way, Daniel thinks, and he’ll land that contract. He’s sure he’s already figured out how to bridge the cross-Pacific divide, or at least that it will simply be a matter of a few weeks before he truly “gets” China.
This first meeting doesn’t go as planned, though; Daniel doesn’t even know how to place his locally-unknown hometown of Cleveland and the culture of the Midwest in a context his hosts can comprehend, with simple points of clarification spinning off into misguided digressions about Chicago steakhouses and the region’s agricultural history. (After Daniel notes that Cleveland’s economy is no longer supported by farming, the minister’s inexperienced interpreter surmises that he means “Their crops failed long ago.”)
By the time Cavanaugh figures out that it’s best to explain Cleveland to locals as being the American equivalent of the non-coastal, high-aspiring Guiyang, he’s already being tripped up by newer, deeper misunderstandings about the culture he’s volunteered to immerse himself in. Even when Daniel understands himself to be talking to a key magistrate, he’s still shut out of an important side of the conversation, because the exoticism of the English title “magistrate” itself is blinding him to a shocking truth, one which later casts the whole bizarre scene (in which Daniel finds himself quizzed by the official on juicy details of the Enron scandal) in an entirely different light.
Despite the fairly amusing plot, few of the characters stand out as truly vivid, because the performances are a bit flat. A notable exception is Zhang as the conservative minister, stubbornly resisting market reforms and vowing to stage his beloved traditional operas at the new cultural center instead of more foreigner-pleasing acts like acrobats. Ironically, Zhang is himself masterful at physical comedy; he does a great job pantomiming an acrobat who’s spent years training to balance a chair on his nose, adding “I’d like to tell him he’s wasted his life!” That line, like almost half the dialogue in the play, is in Mandarin, but fortunately Hwang-penned supertitles appear in the walls of the set for the audience’s benefit.
Candace Chong is credited as the Mandarin translator of these lines. She worked closely with Hwang on the script, and the theater Playbill gives her translation credit a prized placement reserved for special, unique contributions to the production. Another exceptional feature worth mentioning is the unusual dual-turntable production design, on which two sets of walls rotate independently to form offices, hotel lobbies, and lonely hotel rooms, giving Guiyang a broad but fractured sense of space. Chinglish is currently in performance at the Longacre Theatre.