devouring theatre, film, and food
David Henry Hwang, a small Asian American who wears a wide smile and a baggy suit, is not physically intimidating; but his newest play, Chinglish, reveals him as a towering and accomplished playwright well-versed in the conventions of film and theater, with a sharp wit and compassionate heart. Best known for his 1988 Tony-award winning M. Butterly, a comedy inspired by an American’s mistaken love affair with a Chinese woman who is actually a man, Hwang tackles a similar clash of cultures in the Goodman Theatre’s world premier ofChinglish, focusing not on gender, but on language.
Daniel Cavanaugh, a delightfully ignorant American businessman humorously played by the lanky, high-pitched James Waterston, arrives in the small town of Guiyang, China (only 3 million people) to offer his sign translating services to the government. His financial motives in travelling to China are far from the Orientalism of much of the twentieth century, which exoticized the “East” into an other-worldly wonderland. Now, China is a powerful market where business people come to capitalize.
In this world of business, cultures clash as Daniel must understand not only a different language but a different way of doing business with allegiances and responsibilities. Employed translators, with projected subtitles appearing above their heads, occasionally miss the mark completely, but also frequently reveal another character’s subtext. Mistranslating lends itself to humor, frustration, and poignant dramatic moments that speak to a frustrating inability to cross-communicate. When Daniel isn’t conducting business, he finds himself getting busy with a Chinese woman, powerfully played by Jennifer Lim. Devotion, marriage, and intimacy are explored as they are reflected through the prisms of American and Chinese ideals. Of course, hot passionate sex tends to transcends translation.
These romantic encounters take place on a dual rotating set facilitates, which lends a cinematic quality to the piece as characters travel through hotel lobbies to hotel rooms energized by the pulsing beats of contemporary Chinese pop music. Impressive at first, these twists and turns become a bit burdensome during the fifteen or sixteenth round-a-bout. Along with set twists are plot twists, perhaps one too many, that continue throughout the piece. Heavy plot means heavy dialogue, and moments of silence are rare. But when they do appear, we hear the understanding that can exists when we stop yelling and just exists with another.
Language, that mysterious way we communicate by making noises with our mouths and scribbling shapes on a sheet of paper, is a curious thing. Biological urges and cultural thoughts spontaneously arise in us, and we must translate them into words so we can share them with someone else. Translating between two different languages is, at some level, a blown-up version of the inherently human task of translating individual experience into a shareable, understanding social observation. Chinglish reminds us that perfect translations don’t exists for words between cultures, just as perfect translations don’t exists for experiences between people.