We’ve all seen the photos. A sign that reads, “Do Drunken Driving.” Another warns, “Slip and Fall Down Carefully.” Or a can labeled, “The Jew’s Ear Juice”—perhaps the most unappetizing beverage on the planet. These comical mistranslations provide the springboard for Chinglish, David Henry Hwang’s new play about the failure of language as a means of communication. Much more optimistic than his previous M. Butterfly, it is a sort of mash up of Eugene Ionesco and Hartzell’s Harmony in Conflict: Daniel Cavanaugh (Gary Wilmes), a disgraced Enron executive, tries to internationalize his failing family business, Ohio Signage, by offering high-quality translations for a new cultural center in an up-and-coming Chinese province. He employs Peter Timms (Stephen Pucci), an English teacher posing as a consultant, to weave through the language and the customs of China, meanwhile falling for the Deputy Minister of Culture, Xi Yan (Jennifer Lim).
What is nice about Chinglish is that it does not rely on its single joke. Sure, it’s fun to hear Xi tell Daniel “I’m sleeping with you” when she means that she’s exhausted, or to see the American struggle with a tonal language, proudly declaring, “My fifth aunt,” when he means, “I love you.” But you can only get so much mileage out of this humor—more suited to a chain email than a serious play—and Hwang proves both insightful and fair; for example, when pitching his proposal, Daniel glibly mocks the mistranslations on bathrooms at another cultural center, only to be confronted with a distinguished American journal which has accidentally printed a poem from a Shanghai sex club on its cover. This is timelier than it may seem—Daniel is being forced to confront his ethnocentrism in a world where America’s economic rule is quickly crumbling.
Appropriately, then, about half the play is in English and the other half in Mandarin, with supertitles projected behind the actors. This trick allows characters to speak their thoughts aloud without being heard by others, a clever way of giving them asides without sacrificing realism and therefore bringing the subtext to the fore. Though this might play as lazy in another context, it works here, giving us a nice dramatic irony where nobody understands each other but the audience understands everyone. It also allows Hwang to question Western Romantic notions of love, in which a man showers his lover with poetry and in which understanding is so complete that the two feel as one. Here, Daniel and Xi are excited by and fulfilled with their relationship so long as they are unaware of each other’s notions of it; when Daniel is finally able to articulate himself, everything is shattered. In a wonderful moment, Xi, terminating their relationship, tells him, “I’m sleeping with you.”
Still, Hwang cannot resist the temptation to frame Chinglish in a business lecture given by Daniel years after the events depicted, which means unnecessary, summative monologues that outline the major thematic arcs of the play: Daniel concludes by saying that ultimately Americans and Chinese really don’t really understand each other and for now we’ll just have to get by with Chinglish. Seriously—“Chinglish” is the last word in the play. And while Ms. Lim is absolutely terrific (she occasionally uses this spot-on, condescending head-shake when confronted with Western nonsense), Mr. Wilmes never seems to embody his role and his acting is just a bit too transparent; it’s the type of community theater performance we would hope could never make it to Broadway.
But while Chinglish certainly has its flaws, it is an interesting experiment. Though Xi may not like what Daniel says, she enjoys how he says it. In a tender moment, she tells him, “I love to watch your lips move.” Any play that can successfully challenge as well as validate the value of the medium’s most important asset is worth seeing.