Chinglish, written by David Henry Hwang and directed by Leigh Silverman, is a comedy set in modern day capitalistic China. It follows the adventures of Daniel, a down-on-his-luck Ohio businessman, (Alex Moggridge) looking to sell signs with the proper Chinese to English translations to the new cultural center in Guiyang. He works with Peter, (Brian Nishii) who presents himself as a business consultant, to try to land a deal with Minister Cai, (Larry Lei Zhang) to make signs communicating the right messages to visitors at the new cultural center. Communication, and what it means to communicate, is at the heart of this play.
The hilariously poor communication between characters is the biggest catalyst for laughter. Business meetings, dinners, and steamy hotel scenes are all jam-packed full of awkward moments as characters try their hand at each other's languages. Often, things like "I love you" turn into "My fifth aunt" and "Frogs love pee."
So sometimes a translator is brought in to help, but the provided translators are just as horrible at communicating the real message as the signs Daniel is in China to fix.
The best part is that every time someone says a line in Mandarin, the English subtitles are projected onto the set so the audience can read the always funny translations. So much so is this the best part, that you can feel the crowd waiting anxiously after every Mandarin line, prompted to laugh at the absurdity of the English translation.
But the play also successfully hits on the more serious parts of the overall theme of communication. Most prominently: Can you fall in love with someone if you don't speak the same language? Daniel, and the vice-minister of culture for Guiyang, Xi Yan, (Michelle Krusiec) spend a majority of the play trying to find out. The script also throws several jabs at the legitimacy of marriage, which the mostly older crowd seemed to thoroughly enjoy. Xi Yan, Daniel's love interest, often invokes laughter with a different kind of language -- body language. Whether it's a confused look on her face as Daniel speaks English to her, or her confident delivery of absolutely absurd English declarations, she didn't rely on the projected subtitles as much as others to crack up the crowd, and stood out as one of the funniest characters.
The fancy rotating set was not only impressive, but it was also used to add small transitions into the story. Characters would interact with the stage while it was in motion giving the audience a really unique visual. To see Daniel hop in a moving elevator headed up to his room only to be seen moments later in his bed, was both fun to watch and also helpful in giving the play a sense of continuity. The set and script had small details that gave the play an authentic Chinese feel, such as the two jugs of water, one half full, in the corner of the hotel room, since foreigners can't drink water in China without getting sick. Also, the Coca-Cola, not Pepsi, in every restaurant scene, and the answering of phone calls in situations Westerners would consider rude. Then there were the horribly translated signs, like one on a handicapped bathroom reading, "Deformed man's toilet." Everything was set up so that, with a little bit of suspended disbelief, audience members could feel like the stage really was in China, and just a couple feet away the seats were still in the U.S.
The characters, however, often lacked depth, making it hard to feel emotionally connected to them and their issues. From time to time the door into their lives would crack open just a little bit, revealing a peek at some interesting information, but would then be slammed shut again moments later. The lack of complexity in their characters left the audience feeling like they always knew where the play was headed, so much so that some even blurted out some plot line development lines before the actors could.
Chinglish continues through October 7 at Berkeley Repertory Theater. Admission is $14.50-$99.