Chinglish

By David Henry HwangChinglish by Hwang

Directed by Leigh Silverman

At the Goodman Theatre, Chicago

Smart, complex and very funny comedy depicts the difficulties for American doing business in China

David Henry Hwang is having an impressive run this summer in Chicago with the Silk Road Theatre Project’s fine production of Yellow Face and now the world premiere of the expert comedy Chinglish at the Goodman Theatre.  This intelligent, telling and quite funny comedy has already been picked for a fall production on Broadway. Hwang is doing his bet work in years especially with Chinglish.

Chinglish by Hwang

This is a hilarious take on the challenges of doing business in a culture world’s apart form our own. There is much happening in this work requiring our full attention.  At first glance, Chinglish seems to be a comedy based on the language barriers and cultural oddities that separate American and Chinese cultures.  Since the Mandarin Chinese language has 80,000 characters and each word has a different meaning depending on the vocal tone of the speaker and since American and Chinese idioms are almost impossible to translate, Chinglish is rich in funny translations nicely displayed as super-titles.

Chinglish by Hwang

The work starts out with Daniel Cavanaugh (the empathetic James Waterson) giving the introduction to his seminar geared to teach Americans how to do business in Chicago. He uses problems in translations to illustrate the language and cultural divides that threaten American success in Chicago. The laughs abound.

Chinglish by Hwang

Flashback to the time when  Cavanaugh traveled to Guiyang, China to solicit business  for his Cleveland sign company. Cavanaugh hires and Australian, Peter Timms (Stephen Pucci who speaks fluent Mandarin besides English) to be his translator/consultant. Timms has 20 years in China as a teacher. He teaches Cavanaugh the cultural eccentricities of the Chinese pointing out how “guanxi” – a social concept that requires  comfortable personal and business relationships between the Chinese and the Americans before business can be conducted. Peter states that guanxi takes time to establish.

The humorous early scenes with Timms/Cavanaugh and the Chinese officials sets the tone fueled by language/cultural differences. Perception and face  add depth to the humor and plot lines.  Cavanaugh receives mixed signals from the Chinese and from Timms as he turns to Xu Yan (Jennifer Lim) as an alternative. She uses seduction to move her agenda forward. But is Xu Yan really trying to help the American or is she merely wanting sex with him?

This complex yet quite funny work depicts cultural differences that include our American view of romantic marriage versus the Chinese view that marriage is an institutional partnership. That difference allows Xu Yan to use Cavanaugh to enhance her husband’s career.

Amazingly, Cavanaugh’s past troubles as an Enron executive gives him favorable status with the Chinese since they admire unscrupulous businessman – especially large-scale business crooks.

This fast-paced comedy revolves (literally on David Korins fine set) using easy to read Super-titles to express the meanings of the spoken Mandarin. Credit Candace Chong translations back and forth from English to Mandarin to add spice to the production.  The skilled actors speak Mandarin/English and they land their comedy with spot-on timing. The work gets us laughing as it vividly deals with the peculiarities of each culture.  With Chinglish, we learn a little about the challenges of doing business in China and we get a few hardy laughs along the way. Hwang has a clever hit with Chinglish. Translators provided!

Highly Recommended

Tom Williams

Talk Theatre in Chicago podcast

Date Reviewed: June 27, 2011

Jeff Recommended

For full show information, go to the  Chinglish page at TheatreinChicago.

At the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago, IL, call 312-443-3800, www.goodmantheatre.org, Tuesday thru Thursday at 7:30 pm, Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 2 & 8 pm, Sundays at 2 & 7:30 pm, Thursdays matinees at 2 pm, running time is 2 hours, 10 minutes with intermission, through July 24, 2011