A lethal comedy about business, sex and the failure to communicate, “Chinglish” could be a model tale for these times of China’s rise to economic domination.
An ambitious Western man comes under the spell of a beautiful Chinese woman, leading to mixed messages and transformed lives.
That thumbnail sketch applies equally to “M. Butterfly,” the David Henry Hwang play that electrified Broadway in 1988, and to his latest, which opened last night at the Longacre Theatre.
In U.S.-China relations, everything and nothing has changed during the 23 year interregnum, a point Hwang makes to amusing effect in a script that bristles with intelligence while tripping over its own cleverness.
Any notion of Chinese subservience has been displaced by economic reversals making us debtors to the People’s Republic. Intrigue abounds; jokes resulting from wickedly bad translation are likely as not to be intentional, as competition for Chinese patronage has increased. Lighter in tone than “Butterfly,” “Chinglish” is the product of a more mature dramatic imagination.
Dan Cavanaugh (the tremulous Gary Wilmes) arrives in the second-tier city of Guiyang, hoping to secure a contract for his bankrupt Cleveland sign-making company. His hosts have their own agendas already well in play.
Determined to emerge from the shadow of Beijing and Shanghai, Guiyang has built a spiffy new cultural center. With the help of a British consultant (Stephen Pucci) fluent in the language, Dan pitches the culture minister (voluble Larry Lei Zhang), promising that his company will insure that they avoid the embarrassing mistakes that occur when idiomatic phrases are literally translated. (“Small family firm” may be rendered, “his business is insignificant,” for example.)
The minister wants to hire him. His seemingly dour deputy (Jennifer Lim, keenly mixing steeliness and sexual predation) is against the idea. At least until she starts sleeping with Dan, who foolishly falls in love with her though both are married.
Hwang is less concerned with the clash of cultures than with the universality of public postures, private agendas and the way bureaucracies enable one to abet the other.
Here the playwright draws a bit of Gogol from his comic arsenal, as personal issues are tangled up in the power plays of petty, self-aggrandizing party functionaries who are always looking over their shoulder. Dan quickly realizes he’s in way over his head, and his response imbues “Chinglish” with its deeper resonance.
Leigh Silverman, whose masterly staging of Hwang’s savagely funny “Yellow Face” was a high point four seasons back, has paced “Chinglish” energetically. Great attention is paid to detail, to the all-important language and its potential for hijinks. But she can’t solve the uneasy tonal shifts that make some of the show heavy going.
And it’s overproduced (there are more names above the title than below). David Korins’s shape-shifting sets -- generic offices, homes, hotel rooms -- spin and flip during needlessly frequent scene changes. Simpler would have served Hwang, and us, better.
At 220 W. 48th St. Information: +1-212-239-6200; http://www.telecharge.com. Rating: **1/2
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(Jeremy Gerard is the drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)