Wednesday, August 27, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

New York Review: CHINGLISH

By Toby Zinman

New York Review: CHINGLISH

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By Toby Zinman

For the Inquirer

Everybody who’s been to China comes back with examples of signs where the translations are hilariously wrong. My favorite was a very tempting warning sign near a pier: “Caution. Danger. Do not caper.”  The plot of David Henry Hwang’s new play, Chinglish, turns on an American businessman who runs a sign company in Cleveland; he goes to China hoping to do a deal to provide accurately translated signs for “the world’s largest number of untapped consumers.”

He will discover, through a variety of misadventures that leave him bewildered, that the moral of the story is “always bring your own translator.”  Much of the play is in Mandarin, and Hwang has provided us with a translator in the form of supertitles; if this sounds off-putting, it’s not, although I imagine actors performing in Chinese must be frustrated knowing that most of the audience isn’t looking at them but reading the words above their heads.

Just how difficult communication can be occurs in a wonderful demonstration when the American businessman tries to tell Xi Yan  he loves her. He says the Mandarin phrase five times, each time inflected slightly differently.  He thinks he’s expressing depth of emotion with each variation. But Chinese is a tonal language and the results, the supertitles tell us are:

Love.

Dust.

Dirty Sea Mud.

Snail Loves Cow.

Frog Loves to Pee.

No wonder Act I ends with “What?” 

The spectacular revolving set (by David Korins) is, like Leigh Silverman’s direction, superslick, a show with distinct Broadway characteristics (like capitalism with Chinese characteristics—the startlingly accurate way China self-describes its new economics).

The cast is equally impressive: Jennifer Lim is the sometimes sexy, sometimes stern dragon lady Xi Yan, and Gary Wilmes is the tall, open-faced American.  Larry Lei Zhang’s Mandarin is delicious to listen to, while as the opportunistic teacher, Stephen Pucci’s Mandarin is astonishing (program notes tell us he holds a BA in Mandarin Chinese).

Two threads run through David Henry Hwang’s plays: national identity and betrayal. From the terrific complexities of his early M Butterfly  to his recent Yellow Face, people are never what or whom they seem to be.  Male? Female? Chinese? Caucasian? 

So it’s surprising and disappointing to find that Chinglish is a one-note comedy.  It can come as no news to anybody that Chinese is a difficult language and that Westerners are bound to make assumptions about cultural customs and individual motives that turn out to be wrong.

Americans are portrayed as hopelessly naïve and romantic (”Love is the American religion”), and the Chinese are portrayed as duplicitous, secretive and subtle.  I wonder what all the Chinese audience members (and there were many) thought about Hwang’e  caricaturish depiction of the national temperament.

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At the Longacre Theatre,  220 W. 48th St., New York. Tickets $31.50-121.50. Information: 800-432-7250

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About this blog
Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer. She also is a contributing writer for Variety and American Theatre magazine. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of four books about four playwrights (Rabe, McNally, Miller, Albee), and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). Her 'weekend' job as a travel writer provides adventure: dogsledding in the Yukon, ziplining in Belize, walking coast-to-coast across England, and cowboying in the Australian Outback.


Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.


Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.


Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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