Global trade deals and trade protectivism are dominating the news lately making David Henry Hwang’s Chinglish a timely piece of comedy to stage. China is the biggest untapped market and global businessmen are salivating with all that potential. Reel back 3 years Daniel Cavanaugh has recently taken over the crumbling family business, Ohio Signage. He reckons he can break into the Chinese market and make poorly translated Chinese signs such as “Deformed men restroom” for disabled toilet, blunders of the past. Unfortunately, he cannot speak any Chinese, has no understanding of “guanxi” – a byzantine system of nepotism and corruption, and to top it all falls for the wrong woman.
Hwang’s writing is funny and accessible, despite spanning two completely different languages. Mistranslations throughout the play get the most laughs, they might be an obvious comedic device but they work nonetheless. The characters are broadly sketched, which does not allow the audience to connect with them in a more emotional level but the text still manages to wittily etch out the rough outlines of the vast cultural gap between China and the West, the changing cultural attitudes and to explore the gap between what is said and what is meant in business and personal relationships.
The strongest point of this production is the excellent casting and the fast-paced direction. Gyuri Sarossy is a convincing naïve and clueless American; Lobo Chan and Duncan Harte make for a nice duo of the venal and the downtrodden; and the interpreter trio add to the performance comedic sass, showcasing the attitudes of the younger generation. But, it is Candy Ma that steals the limelight, her character is definitively the best developed and complex, and her performance does justice to the steely Xi Yan, a young wife, who initially appears trapped in her marriage and her cultural norms, but is revealed to be sensual, savvy and clear-headed with unflinching ambition. Probably, the epitome of what Westerners find incomprehensible and threatening in China’s economic and geopolitical advances in the world stage.
Do catch Chinglish, it is funny, excellently performed and a adequately satirical.