NEW YORK — Most plays strive for clarity. David Henry Hwang's latest, "Chinglish," does the opposite.
The playwright behind "M. Butterfly" has returned to Broadway with the fine Sino-American comedy, a work that explores the space between words and meaning. It opened Thursday at the Longacre Theatre.
Hwang has built a bilingual farce about mistranslation that explores the cultural differences between China and America using two languages, and then layered a love story on top of it to illustrate the divide. This is fresh, energetic and unlike anything else on Broadway.
Director Leigh Silverman has somehow juggled all this in addition to surtitles and a kinetic, virtually cinematic set. The result is a thoughtful, funny and poignant piece in which, miraculously, nothing gets lost in translation.
The seven-character play, which debuted at Chicago's Goodman Theatre this summer, is about a good-natured American businessman in China who finds himself lost in a complex cultural system. Hwang doesn't come to a feel-good, Kumbaya conclusion in which both sides hug and laugh. He's suggesting something darker: that the gap separating people from the U.S. and China may never be closed.
Gary Wilmes stars as the sweet but innocent Daniel, the head of an Ohio-based sign-making business that has suffered financially. He goes to the Chinese city of Guiyang to escape his past and secure lucrative Chinese contracts by making impeccable signs.
Speaking no Mandarin, Daniel comes to rely on Peter, an Englishman (a solid Stephen Pucci) who is hoping to reinvent himself as a business consultant after spending years as a teacher in China. But his personality keeps getting in his way, even though he knows better. His character arc is ultimately not convincing, but his fish-out-of-water tale is a good addition to the story.
Daniel's purpose – to make money from bridging the Sino-American gap armed with linguistic exactness – allows Hwang to have fun with mangled translations. As part of his sales pitch, Daniel points out that signs for "Handicapped Restroom" have become "Toilet for Deformed Man" in China. Hwang also riffs off the fragmentary way Mandarin and English are translated by each side. "My hands are tied," one Chinese official complains, which is translated in English as "He is in bondage." The English translations of Mandarin are subtlety projected onto the set, allowing the audience access to the real meanings.
Things get even more complicated when Daniel falls for Xi Yan (an astonishing Jennifer Lim), who appears at first as a chilly bureaucrat but softens into a love interest. Her motives, as those of most of the characters on either side of the divide, remain unclear until the end.
Hwang uses this strained love story to compare different conceptions of love, marriage and respect. So often, both sides struggle for words to explain themselves, yet the playwright has his actors find other ways to communicate – through gestures, Tarzan English ("China – strong! America – weak!" says Daniel at one point to his lover), or facial expressions. Without a shared language, they still end up in a very human space.
Hwang has written fully fleshed out characters and none more so than Lim's Xi, an auspicious Broadway debut. Starting from a cartoonish sharp-tongued caricature and then slowly blooming with complexity, Lim shows Xi as lustful, funny, angry and guilty. We might want her love affair with Daniel to transcend culture, but Hwang won't take any easy ways out.
One of the biggest pleasures of the play is David Korins' set, which seems to reveal new fantastically realized spaces – hotel bedrooms, marble-heavy lobbies and offices – every few minutes. Korins has appropriately created a sort of Chinese puzzle where rooms open on themselves, spin in and out and unfold.
It is all sometimes disorientating – perfectly in tune with the play. There are even a few thrilling moments when an actor runs onto a set as it races across the stage and another is fast appearing like an accordion, making the performer look as if he's in a movie. Music designer Darron L. West's use of loud contemporary Chinese pop music between scenes adds a familiar unfamiliarity.
Credit Hwang – one of the only Americans exploring the Chinese-American experience – with never romanticizing China, and for suggesting that some cultural differences are just insurmountable. China is on the rise, after all, and it's time we got used to being considered inscrutable.
"Nowadays, to be successful, you have to understand your place in their picture. Just be aware that you may not – well, I can almost assure you that you will not – get everything you want," Daniel warns us. "And that may just have to be enough."