a theatre, film & pop culture review
(adj.) Of or relating to a language in which both English and Chinese words are used together in order to express a meaning.
In the Broadway premiere of Chinglish, David Henry Hwang blends English and Mandarin in an attempt to express that East-West relations are as complex as the languages themselves. Not exactly an earth-shattering revelation — Hwang already covered this ground 23 years ago, more compellingly, with M. Butterfly — this new play is more fluff than substance.
Springing from the author’s personal experiences in China over the past five years, Chinglish follows American businessman Daniel Cavanaugh (Gary Wilmes, the only new cast member since the premiere in Chicago, is more earnest than engaging) who desperately seeks to score a lucrative deal for his family’s sign-making firm as he travels to China. Of course along the way he manages to fall for Xi Yan, the sharp businesswoman (a sexy-shrewd Jennifer Lim) who isn’t as honest or good as she insists him to be.
Chinglish has a light touch: the comedy almost entirely consist of redundant mistranslations (Shawn Duan’s subtitle projections are nicely clear-cut) that never quite have any bite to them, and are all drawn out indulgently. One of few comic bits not riffing on language barriers — a group of Chinese businessmen fawn over Daniel for his involvement in the Enron scandal (which they not-so-hilariously admire) — drags on for well over ten minutes in which the Chinese inquire about each head of Enron. Moments like this add up to a production that is overlong and yet still doesn’t say enough: While the comedy needs trimming, the characters need filling out.
For the most part, director Leigh Silverman keeps the pace quick, but with so many lost-in-translation moments, it all feels a bit sitcom-y. David Korins’s slick-yet-purposefully-bland set only adds the overall indulgence of the production: On a double turntable, it’s an overly complicated puzzle that never stops moving, as though to inspire awe when its pieces finally converge to form a new location. It’s distracting, and the “scenes” that Silverman creates, in a well-meaning attempt to justify the time spent while the set spins and conjoins, are just plain silly. Darron L. West’s “hip” Chinese pop-rap soundtrack at least keeps the energy up while the set slows things down.
Critics so largely enjoyed the show (and it impressed in its world premiere at the Goodman as well) that I have to think it’s partially due to the rarity of comedies on Broadway these days. And, honestly, who isn’t rooting for Hwang? But with thematic ground that has been covered and jokes stretched as thin as rice vermicelli, Chinglish doesn’t translate to much.