Two Languages, One Joke

Written by Mark Peikert on . Posted in Posts, Theater.


For two hours, playwright David Henry Hwang treats audiences
to the world’s longest, most boring episode of Three’s Company imaginable with Chinglish, in which the same misunderstanding is twisted into
as many different variations as Hwang can conjure. That single joke is how
American businessman Daniel Cavanaugh (Gary Wilmes) travels to Guiyang, China,
and doesn’t speak a word of Chinese. Hilarity ensues!

Or more to the point, hilarity should ensue. But how often
can one read supertitle translations of Cavanaugh’s mangling of Chinese before
boredom creeps in? Director Leigh Silverman seems to have plenty of misguided
faith in the comic potential of Hwang’s concept, because her pacing is plenty
slow, presumably to let those hysterical mistakes sink in. Slow readers, you
know.

As a one-act, Chinglish
might have some potential, but stretched out to two hours, it fades as quickly
as Cavanaugh’s business prospects. Guiyang’s Minister of Culture (Larry Lei
Zhnag) has no real interest in giving Cavanaugh’s Cleveland sign-making company
the order for translated signs, but for some reason his deputy, Xi Yang (a
stellar Jennifer Lim) goes behind her boss’ back to help Cavanaugh. If you
think that their relationship, which quickly turns sexual, is fraught with
misunderstandings, then you have saved yourself the price of a ticket.

Silverman’s cast do find variations on Hwang’s single
gag—particularly Angela Lin and Johnny Wu as inept translators—but there is a
limit to the flexibility of the human face when delivering misinterpreted
information. Mostly, the performers do what they can to keep the play’s pulse
beating, despite its inertness. There’s a weak, sitcom feel to the proceedings
that stems from Hwang’s unlikely script; Chinglish is like The Bald Soprano, if Eugene Ionesco had leaned heavily on the comedy
without trying to illuminate larger truths amid the gibberish.

Seeing a largely Asian cast of actors on a Broadway stage is
a refreshing change of pace, but one wishes these men and women—with the
exception of Lim’s nuanced, steel wool performance—were given the chance to do
something other than remind us of their otherness.

Chinglish

Through Jan. 29, Longacre Theatre, 220 W. 48th St. (betw. Broadway
& 8th Ave.), www.chinglishbroadway.com; $31.50–$126.50.

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