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updated: 7/1/2011 5:41 PM

Cultural clashes a comic gold mine in 'Chinglish'

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  • Xu Yan (Jennifer Lim) meets with Daniel (James Waterston) to discuss his business proposal in the world premiere of David Henry Hwang's "Chinglish" at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.

      Xu Yan (Jennifer Lim) meets with Daniel (James Waterston) to discuss his business proposal in the world premiere of David Henry Hwang's "Chinglish" at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.
    Eric Y. Exit/Goodman Theatre

  • Daniel Cavanaugh (James Waterston) gives a lecture on the relationship between American and Chinese businesses in the world premiere of David Henry Hwang's "Chinglish" at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.

      Daniel Cavanaugh (James Waterston) gives a lecture on the relationship between American and Chinese businesses in the world premiere of David Henry Hwang's "Chinglish" at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.
    Eric Y. Exit/Goodman Theatre

  • Miss Qian (Angela Lin, center) struggles to translate a business plan between Peter (Stephen Pucci), left, Daniel (James Waterston), Minister Cai Guoliang (Larry Zhang) and Vice Minister Xu Yan (Jennifer Lim) in the world premiere of David Henry Hwang's "Chinglish" at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.

      Miss Qian (Angela Lin, center) struggles to translate a business plan between Peter (Stephen Pucci), left, Daniel (James Waterston), Minister Cai Guoliang (Larry Zhang) and Vice Minister Xu Yan (Jennifer Lim) in the world premiere of David Henry Hwang's "Chinglish" at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.
    Eric Y. Exit/Goodman Theatre

 
By Scott Morgan

Watching the world premiere of David Henry Hwang's hilarious comedy "Chinglish" at Chicago's Goodman Theatre, I kept thinking to myself, "Everything about this show is great! It could easily be on Broadway."

So it shouldn't have come as a surprise that New York producers Jeffrey Richards and Jerry Frankel announced plans to transfer "Chinglish" to Broadway this fall just one day after Monday's opening night. So now instead of just being a smart and savvy laugh marathon about the romantic and business cultural clashes of an American in modern-day China, "Chinglish" now carries the distinction of being another Chicago-to-Broadway show that locals can be proud of.

Heed this advice: Get your tickets now.

With "Chinglish," Tony Award-winning playwright Hwang ("M. Butterfly," "Golden Child") shows himself in top form by mining loads of humor from the lost-in-translation linguistic differences between English and Mandarin Chinese. Hwang's comic-dramatic situations and projected English translations of spoken Mandarin by Candace Chong will leave you in constant stitches.

"Chinglish" focuses on the Cleveland-based businessman Daniel Cavanaugh (James Waterston), who attempts to get a contract for his family's sign-making company for a new performing arts center in the city of Guiyang, China. Though Cavanaugh takes steps to make up for his cultural ignorance by hiring Australian Peter Timms (Stephen Pucci) as a translator and business consultant, he soon finds himself confused over who is and isn't trustworthy.

Is Timms' friendship with Minister Cai Guoliang (Larry Zhang) helpful or a hindrance? And are the offers of assistance (and potential romantic interest) from the initially chilly Vice Minister Xu Yan (Jennifer Lim) something to actively pursue or ignore?

Director Leigh Silverman keeps everything fleet and very funny in "Chinglish," masterfully juggling elements ranging from the actors' impeccable comic timing to the technological design elements of Jeff Sugg's essential projection designs. Also adding loads of professionalism to "Chinglish" is David Kornis' sleek and ingenious set designs that swirl choreographically into place to make up multiple locations.

Amid all this dazzling stagecraft are strong and impressive performances from the largely bilingual cast. Lim and Waterston are particularly touching as their respectively flawed characters of Xu and Cavanaugh reflect on their troubled marriages, while both Pucci and Zhang are great delivering their confident business dealings with plenty of swagger and desperation. Playing multiple roles, Angela Lin, Christine Lin and Johnny Wu each get their moment to shine as three different translators whose English language skills vary widely to great comic effect.

Throughout all the gales of Broadway-bound laughter, Hwang's "Chinglish" also taps into the zeitgeist of Americans warily eyeing the seemingly unstoppable economic and cultural rise of China in the 21st century global marketplace. All this makes "Chinglish" not only timely, but an essential comic jab to nudge all business-minded Americans to start considering Mandarin Chinese lessons.

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