December 14, 2011

"Ch’ing•lish" Has Some Serious Things to Say

The first thing I noticed when my husband K and I walked into the Longacre Theatre to see David Henry Hwang’s new play Ch’ing•lish was the unusually large number of Asian faces in the audience. I wasn’t surprised to see them. Hwang’s play not only deals with the miscommunication between the U.S. and its latest frenemy, China, but is performed partly in Mandarin. 

Don’t worry. Translated supertitles are projected on screens above the stage so you won’t miss a word. And a good number of them are worth hearing—or reading, as the case might be.

Hwang is, of course, still best known as the author of M. Butterfly, the Tony-winning play about a French diplomat who carries on a 20-year love affair with a Chinese opera star without knowing that the singer is not only a spy but a man. But Hwang is also known for being quite a funny guy and Ch’ing•lish shows off his sitcomy side.  

Here’s the situation: a Midwestern businessman goes to a similarly midland Chinese city where he hopes to get a contract to make English-language signs for its new cultural center and finds a surprising ally in a beautiful lady minister.

The clash between East and West is obviously still on Hwang’s mind and his new cross-cultural couple grapples with bureaucratic red tape, illicit romance and rudimentary knowledge of one another’s customs and language.  The latter is mined for much comic effect.

Jennifer Lim has been drawing great reviews for her portrayal of the lady minister  (click here to read a profile of her). I thought she was good too, but not quite enough to write home about.  Same goes for Gary Wilmes as the not-so-ugly American.

Leigh Silverman’s direction is fine and snappy, although I don’t know why she felt the need to have actors doing unrelated and distracting business in the background of so many scenes. 

But for my money the MVP honors should go to scenic designer David Korins who has constructed nimble sets that smoothly transform into a variety of settings from a mid-level bureaucrat’s office to a four-star hotel lobby. They’re smartly lit by Brian MacDevitt and the jaunty incidental music by sound designer Darron L West adds to the fun.

In some ways, though, Ch’ing•lish is a one-joke play.  Hwang has a good time with the way literal translations of even the simplest statement can mean something entirely different than its speaker intended.  When, for instance, the businessman describes his company as a “small family firm” it’s mistranslated as “his business is insignificant.” 

But in another way, particularly in the second act, Ch’ing•lish has something more serious to say about how much the West still has to learn about the nuances of Chinese culture, a worthwhile topic at a time when the Chinese hold the mortgage on America’s financial future. 

In between, Hwang flirts with so many stereotypes that I thought the Asian audience members might be offended.  But they didn’t seem to be. 

Instead, they—including the chic woman seated next to meseemed to get a kick out of it all, particularly hearing the Mandarin dialog. There were several times when my seatmate chuckled so deeply that I was convinced the translations of the translations must have been missing something. 

But what’s really missing are enough people to fill up the seats at the Longacre. Despite largely positive reviews (click here to check some of them out) the play doesn’t seem to be crossing over to non-Mandarin speakers. It played to just under 40 percent of capacity last week and that was down from the week before.  

That's too bad because Ch’ing•lish gives smart theater lovers something to chew on and you don't have to be Asian to savor it . 

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