David Henry Hwang’s ‘Chinglish’ translates modern business relationships into comedic gold

Through his smart observations of cultural differences impacting our rapidly changing business landscape, David Henry Hwang finds the uncomfortable hilarity in the art of global negotiation in his new play, Chinglish (which is moving to Broadway in the fall).

It’s not so much who’s pulling the strings in this incredibly entertaining comedy, but why. Add in a language barrier handled by unexperienced translators who turn idiosyncratic phrases like “my hands are tied” into “he’s into bondage,” and you have an East-meets-West tale as old as time.

Now receiving its world premiere at the Goodman Theatre, Chinglish is everything you want in a comedy: it’s smart, it’s topical, it keeps you on your toes, it’s well-crafted and the frequent laughs are more than earned.

We relate with the American entrepreneurial spirit of Daniel (James Waterston) — a go-get-em, if slightly naive, Cleveland-based businessman trying to pull his family-owned business out of the crapper by selling his “high quality signage” to the leaders of Guiyang — a “small” city (of nearly 4 million people) in China. His main pitch to the city’s minister (Larry Zhang) is recalling a recent embarrassment of Chinese-to-English translations at an international Shanghai cultural arts center, where signs like “Don’t forget to carry your thing” result in snickers and “Handicapped bathroom” is mistranslated into … something quite un-PC.

Unfortunately for Daniel, this aggressive selling approach isn’t the best way to achieve “guanxi” — a social concept of trust developed by fostering personal relationships that is the backbone of business in China. Without first establishing guanxi, a signed contract is essentially meaningless.

Fortunately (or perhaps not), Daniel has Peter on his side (Stephen Pucci), a savvy Australian and self-described consultant who’s lived in China for 20 years, speaks fluent Mandarin and seemingly understands the intricacies necessary to establish guanxi.

Things get a bit sticky however — in more ways than one — when Daniel gets involved with Xu Yan (Jennifer Lim), the city’s vice minister and a powerhouse businesswoman who knows what she wants and how to get it.

The acting by this mostly bilingual cast under Leigh Silverman’s expert direction is pitch-perfect — particularly the chemistry between Waterston and Lim. Through clever use of supertitles, Hwang allows us entry into the inner workings of the native speakers. For example, during a strained, translator-free business meeting, Lim fires out intimate things about herself to Daniel in her native tongue, which goes right over his monolingual head. Daniel gets a sense she’s saying something important, but it’s all a puzzle to piece together.

Taking this puzzle concept a step further, David Korins’ ingenious rotating set design is like a giant, interlocking toy. As the various pieces spin during tightly choreographed scene changes, we get glimpses of spaces: a hotel lobby, a board room, a restaurant. It’s fast, fascinating and precise. Include ample laughs, and you’ve just described Chinglish.

“Chinglish” plays through July 31 at the Goodman Theatre. More info here >

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