‘Chinglish,’ An American in China
By Isa Goldberg / Chief Theater Critic
A masterful piece of investigative reporting, Mike Daisey’s “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” currently at the Public Theater, addresses the exploitation of factory workers in Shenzhen outside of Hong Kong where electronics devices from Apple’s to Dell’s are manufactured. Daisey demonstrates how American consumerism, our need for more and better products, drives the insufferable conditions in China’s factories. An indictment of the economic forces that lead to slave labor, Daisey’s new monologue is well documented, forceful, and humanizing.
Also on the subject of Sino-American business relations, David Henry Hwang’s new play “Chinglish,” speaks to the misunderstanding and outright hypocrisy that fuel it. The story, about an American sign manufacturer who goes to China to win a major contract, brings the language barrier into focus.
In the play’s very first scene Daniel is delivering a lecture about the difficulties of translation, pointing to a photograph of a sign that reads in English: “’To take notice of safe: the slippery are very crafty.’" As Daniel explains, “The proper translation should be, ‘Slippery Slopes Ahead.’"
But the adage, “the slippery are very crafty” ends up being more to the point of Hwang’s comedy, in which Daniel becomes entangled with a wily and seductive government official, Xi Yan. The mayhem that ensues resembles a scene from The Three Stooges, only the physical comedy that hits us over the head occurs over love making as opposed to punching and pushing. Naively swept up in Xi Yan’s embraces and lies, Daniel tries to express affection, but confuses the word for “love” with “dust.” The words “I love you” turn into “My fifth aunt.” Indeed, words express a certain meaning; but no matter how you cut it, it’s never the true meaning.
As a lot of the conversation is in Chinese, supertitles in English are essential. In addition to craning constantly to read them, one tires of the repetitive repartee in which every line has multiple meanings. Some of the jokes are so obvious it’s as if we were reading cue cards that instruct the audience to laugh. But what we actually read are erroneous translations; the gap between what the characters say, and what the translators tell us they’re saying is worlds apart. And even when the translations are accurate, the characters’ behaviors often don’t match up with their words.
Gary Wilmes plays Daniel Cavanaugh a vulnerable Midwesterner who claims to have been an Enron executive. The art of devious business dealings comes naturally to him. Still, the mastermind of the situation is Xi Yan, portrayed with cunning skill by Jennifer Lim. Regardless of their cultural differences, the two translate each other’s signs brilliantly when it comes to money.
The ensemble rounds out with Johnny Wu in the duel role of translator and ambitious politician, Larry Lei Zhang as a grinning, loyal party member and bureaucrat, and Stephen Pucci, as the English translator who speaks with a silver spoon, however tarnished that has become.
Directed by Leigh Silverman, “Chinglish” moves quickly albeit through shallow waters. David Korins’ sets shift swiftly from conference room, to business lunch, to hotel room, with machine like precision. Unfortunately, that only adds to the cold atmosphere on stage, and the feeling that everything that happens is intensely calculated.
“Chinglish” performs at the Longacre Theatre, 220 West 48th Street, Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. with matinees on Wednesday and Saturday at 2 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. For tickets, call 212-239-6200, visit Telecharge.com or go to the box office.
Photos: Michael McCabe