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