In Chinglish, Victor Cavanaugh, a businessman from Cleveland, travels to the city of Guiyang in China seeking a contract to create the signage for a Chinese cultural center. Cavanaugh speaks no Chinese but uses as an interpreter an English-speaking expatriate fluent in Mandarin who has lived 19 years in China. The Chinese officials they meet speak little or no English, and rely on inept interpreters, so misunderstandings -- and humor -- abound.
Hoagy Carmichael used to sing about taking a slow boat to China, and that is what this comedic drama is. The gaps between what the American says and what the translator reports are projected on a screen; it's richly comic, but a bit like a good, even a great, SNL skit that nevertheless goes on too long. Here the joke is threaded through the comedy, woven into its warp and woof, an integral element, and that is one of the several problems with this work.
It attempts to be a romantic drama as well, implausible as that sounds. And it attempts to say something serious about the two contrasting cultures, but that is sabotaged by the playwright, David Henry Hwang, who has created characters so flawed that the term "corrupt" would not be amiss -- this is a deeply cynical work. We may all be weasels, but then we cannot be savants as well.
The acting is excellent. John Dunn as expatriate linguist Peter Timms creates a fascinating portrait of a scholar who loves his adopted China (or does he?), and has come to rely upon and need the servants he can have there. Vivian Chiu portrays Vice Minister Xi Yan, and she is persuasive indeed in a multifaceted role, calling for her to speak English very poorly, but since we are meant to wonder what she is really thinking, this works well. She works for Minister Cai Guoliang, played by Xin Jian, who is superb at conveying his emotions and intelligence.
Victor Cavanaugh is portrayed by Mike Yager, and he delivers an enthusiastic performance, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, creating a vivid portrait of a minnow swimming with sharks. But as the plot becomes more complex, he does not, though much of this lies with Hwang, who has written Cavanaugh as incurably dense, close to a cartoon. In more minor roles, Janice Pai Martindale, William Wu and Andrea Huang are delightful.
The important projections are by Ryan McGettigan, and they work wonderfully. The play is presented in the stunning auditorium of the Asia Society, and set designer Jodi Bobrovsky has provided sleek sets, but the production is awkward, requiring innumerable scene changes that are handled smoothly, but there are just too many of them, and any momentum is frittered away. (Productions in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles used turntables, mitigating the problem.) There is a needless intermission, slowing it further.
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The work teeters between broad comedy and satiric broadsides -- one involving Enron is priceless. But the play is a hybrid, running full tilt in three different directions: comedy, romance and cultural investigation, failing in all three. It might take a directorial genius to make this into triumphant theater, as Black Lab Theatre did with Boom last year, and the director here, Troy Scheid, has given us skill and competence but not genius.
This is an amusing curiosity, best viewed as a minor effort from Hwang, but it is rich with humor and enhanced by some stunning performances. It is well worth seeing, but will be enjoyed most if expectations are lowered.
Chinglish continues through May 26, Black Lab Theatre and Asia Society Texas Center, 1370 Southmore Blvd. For information or ticketing, call 713-496-9901 or contact www.asiasociety.org/texas.