As anyone who’s ever watched a foreign film knows, humor often gets lost in translation. Yet with Chinglish, playwright David Henry Hwang (M. Butterfly) has built a consistently funny, surprisingly deep two-hour comedy — roughly half of which is performed in Mandarin with English supertitles — entirely around the idea of translation-based humor.
If the whole show were simply about getting a laugh out of bad Chinese-to-English signs, it would get really old really quickly. (Of course, one must devote a certain amount of attention to a placard that reads ”F— the Certain Price of Goods.” That sign should actually read ”Dry Goods Pricing Department” and the convoluted explanation — concerning Communism, Chairman Mao, and the simplification of writing ”beautiful, arcane, devilishly complicated” Chinese characters — is priceless.) And the mistranslations would be silly if they weren’t, in fact, true: The play is inspired by the Asian-American playwright’s own business trips to China, where he saw a handicapped restroom labeled ”Deformed Man’s Toilet.” Here, the protagonist is Daniel Cavanaugh (an appropriately ungainly Gary Wilmes), a Cleveland business owner hoping to cash in on China’s newfound economic strength by plastering his Ohio Signage all over Guiyang.
Naturally, the signs aren’t the only things that get mistranslated in Chinglish. Business meetings become veritable verbal landmines, particularly with the aid of a dippy translator (Angela Lin): ”We’re a small family firm” becomes ”His company is tiny and insignificant”; ”I appreciate the frank American style” becomes ”He enjoys your rudeness.” Director Leigh Silverman tends to whip the actors into a sitcom-style frenzy, but you can see why: A scene between the non-Chinese speaking Daniel and the barely-English speaking Xi (a sensational Jennifer Lim) involving the repeated use of the phrase back door requires a certain frenzied build-up. And it’s not the cheap joke you think: There’s a lot more to Chinglish than simply wordplay. A?
(tickets: Telecharge.com or 800-432-7250)