Speaking in Tongues

[media-credit name=”Photo by Michael McCabe ” align=”alignleft” width=”600″][/media-credit]
Stephen Pucci, Gary Wilmes, Angela Lin and Larry Lei Zhang in David Henry Hwang’s “Chinglish.”


‘Chinglish’ has well-placed heart

BY CHRISTOPHER BYRNE | Superficially, David Henry Hwang’s bright, new comedy “Chinglish” is about a clash of cultures. It’s the story of an Ohio businessman, Daniel Cavanaugh, who attempts to resuscitate his failing — and once-notorious — career by opening up the booming Chinese market for his sign company. His idea is to create approaches to public communication that can mean the same in both Mandarin and English. He barges into the commercial city of Guiyang with his can-do American spirit and his belief in the quality of his product — and runs right into the wall of China’s vastly different way of doing business.

With the help of a would-be “consultant,” Peter Timms, the development of “guanxi” — business connections — and a personal relationship that turns intimate with a married female local official, Xi Yan, Cavanaugh ultimately succeeds, but not without some hard knocks.

That’s the plot, but Hwang’s play is really an extended metaphor about connection — the human kind — communication, and the challenges of getting beyond ourselves to grow. It is about the images we create of ourselves, the images we see in each other, and how rare and fleeting true connection is. Too often muddling through doing the best we can, we mean to tell someone we love them and we end up talking about sea mud. Still, if there is a connection there, the other person gets what we mean.

A central joke of the play involves the many ways in which language is misunderstood. Business meetings almost grind to a halt because words and thoughts have been mangled on one side or the other. Cavanaugh’s attempt to tell Xi Yan he loves her is irretrievably botched.

The dramatic tension in “Chinglish” comes from the characters often being at cross-purposes with one another, but there is also an inherent sweetness to all of them that is affecting. Cavanaugh falls for Xi Yan, but she simply wants a vacation from her life. Timms lacks the wherewithal to deliver what he’s promising, but he’s in love with China and can’t leave. It’s neither neat nor pretty, but it is life, and Hwang finds the poetry of it in his comedy.

Having traveled to China for work over the past 15 years, I can attest to how well Hwang has captured that culture’s customs as well as the craziness that can result when Americans try to work through a translator with limited English. Throughout the play, we see all the ways communication can go wrong and sometimes right, and how the best we can do is the best we can do. And it all works out in the end. In that way the play is very affirming.

Gary Wilmes is convincing as Cavanaugh, growing ably through the part as we learn more about him and share this redemptive journey with him. Jennifer Lim is superb as Xi Yan, with impeccable timing that conveys her character’s fiercely romantic side balanced by implacable rationality. Stephen Pucci is terrific as Timms. Angela Lin has a wonderful turn as a befuddled translator, as does Johnny Wu.

Director Leigh Silverman lets us know there are serious things at stake for each of the characters, but always keeps the comedy real and pointed, such as when Larry Lei Zhang, as a minister whose job is being politically threatened, struggles to sustain a professional demeanor amidst plaguing phone calls from family.

David Korins’ creative, jigsaw puzzle-like set is as antic in its changes as some of the scenes, which contributes to the comedy’s high energy. In the end, though, it is the hearts seeking a place to land — even if for a moment — that make “Chinglish” easy for anyone to understand.


Longacre Theatre

220 W. 48th St. (btw. Broadway & 8th Ave.)

Tues.-Thurs. at 7pm; Fri.-Sat. at 8pm

Wed., Sat. at 2pm; Sun. at 3pm

$36.50-$121.50; telecharge.com

Or 212-239-6200