Cross-cultural misunderstandings can be funny, but they underscore a larger point: It's hard to bridge the divide. Language can only take one so far; the nuances of speech, never mind social expectation, are mighty. Which makes David Henry Hwang's new play Chinglish, now at the Longacre, funny and interesting, but occasionally exhausting.
It begins with Daniel, an Ohio businessman (Gary Wilmes), eager for his signage company to gain a foothold in Guiyang, China. His translator Peter (Stephen Pucci) a Brit enamored of all things Chinese, explains that relationships, not contracts, are vital to any future alliance.
But when Daniel and Peter meet the Chinese minister (Larry Lei Zhang) and vice chairman Xi Yan, (an excellent Jennifer Lim), the comedy -- and confusion -- begin. Yan has a translator who butchers English, underscoring how difficult it is to convey meaning. Language and tone are easy to mistake. The miscues are both humorous and wildly inaccurate; in one instance, Daniel explains he "directs all operations" at the company, which a translator relays as: "He is also a surgeon."
Incredibly, a lack of linguistic understanding doesn't prevent an attraction between the efficient Lim and rather bumbling Daniel. She wants to help him, though there are machinations hinted at throughout. The "back door" imbroglios she shares in broken English are as confusing to Daniel as the audience.
Much of the dialogue is in Mandarin, but the translations are shown, letting the audiences in on the joke. While there are no big stakes here -- neither Daniel's personal nor professional needs engender empathy -- Hwang is adept at noting the cultural ironies that do. Both American naïveté and Chinese delight at financial corruption are played well.
On a deeper level, Chinglish explores the old and new China. Daniel is selling signage to an arts complex, not the Red Guard. The current minister despairs of acrobats, but longs for classical Chinese opera. He will be judged on performance, not party loyalty. Similarly, Peter, once a phenomenon in China, a foreigner fluent in Mandarin, bemoans the many fluent Western analysts and financiers living in China. He is no longer a boy wonder in China, nor, after 19 years abroad, can he go home again. This is the new China; now foreigners have to please it.
Director Leigh Silverman keeps the action moving, as Lim delivers a knockout performance. Chinglish glides along the surface, when it dips below, it reveals the strange sorrow of those lost in translation.
For the cast of the glorious Kaufman & Hart 1939 comedy The Man Who Came To Dinner, words are currency. In this fast, fizzy production at the Theater at St. Clement's, Sheridan Whiteside (Jim Brochu), a famed radio wit, billed as a "friend to the great and near great" is touring the U.S. when he slips on the doorstep of a rich factory owner in Mesalia, Ohio, just before Christmas.
Confined to a wheelchair while he recuperates, Whiteside, dripping with cheerful venom, commandeers the house, aided by his able secretary Maggie (Amy Landon), who handles his bombast with ease.
Whiteside, played with relish by Brochu, is fun to watch. He tyrannizes the small-town citizens, including his doctor (Tony Triano), nurse (Kristine Nevins) and unlikely hosts, who are banished to their bedrooms, while he enjoys homage. Everyone who was anyone in the 1930s -- from Gandhi to Cary Grant -- is a fan of Whiteside, modeled on critic Alexander Woollcott. A crazed Banjo (Joseph R.Sicari), briefly drops by to pay his respects.
And while the great man is showered with astounding gifts, Maggie discovers the charms of small-town life, specifically newspaper editor and aspiring playwright Bert Jefferson (Jay Stratton). She's in love -- and when she announces she's quitting, the sparks fly.
Whiteside concocts an elaborate plot, enlisting the temptress Lorraine Sheldon (a wonderful Cady Huffman) to lure Jefferson away. Huffman, who won the Tony for The Producers, vamps with glee. Refusing to be outflanked, Maggie recruits the suave British actor Beverly Carlton (John Windsor-Cunningham) with a scheme of her own.
All the plots and subplots come together in a terrific climax, aided by Harry Feiner's sets, Amy Pedigo-Otto's spot-on costumes and a strong ensemble cast. The Man Who Came To Dinner is a triumph of literate playwriting, a smart and sassy holiday treat.
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