If you give a cursory glance to the current signs on the walls of the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, you might think yourself insane. In the men’s bathroom (nevermind why I was there), in lucid black ink, a framed piece of paper displays Chinese characters with the following statement beneath: “Salute to the Tourists Who Keep the Public Hygiene.” It’s confusing, hilarious and altogether strange. Welcome to the world of “Chinglish.”
Playwright David Henry Hwang (of the Tony Award-winning “M. Butterfly”) begins his play about East-West cultural confoundment with a business presentation. A large projection screen floats down, a suited businessman walks out and with aplomb, he shuffles through a series of signs similar to the one mentioned above. One, a placard in a grocery store, has the English translation: “Fuck the Certain Price of Goods.” This is a problem, says the businessman.
Soon, the time and the setting suddenly shift. We are in China, and the once-confident businessman turns out to be Daniel Cavanaugh (Alex Moggridge), the head of a mid-level signage company from Ohio. He’s traveled to China, like so many other American companies have done, in an effort to secure a contract as the sign-maker for the cultural center of Guiyang — essentially, the Cincinnati of China. Things go poorly from the start. Cavanaugh doesn’t speak the language, he’s unsure of the proper business protocol and there’s an illicit love affair and a series of schemes that threaten to derail the whole shebang.
Given the intricate plot, the set designs by David Korins and the direction by Leigh Silverman are no less elaborate. Entire rooms rotate between scenes, with a breakneck pace to match the joke-a-minute screwball speed of the play’s dialogue, which, it should be forewarned, is mostly in Chinese. For a show that is already mired in the complex delicacies of bilingual befuddlement, this fact could have easily presented a problem for those patrons unversed in the language. Thankfully, the clever additions of projected subtitles, alongside the masterful acting of Michelle Krusiec as Cavanaugh’s love interest Xi Yan, allay any fears of misunderstanding.
As the seemingly uptight, blazer-wearing corporate exec Xi Yan, Krusiec wields a ferocity and simultaneous sensitivity unparallelled by her co-stars. In a matter of minutes, she can convincingly turn from frigid bitch to sympathetic, devout wife. When compared to lead Alex Moggridge, who plays Cavanaugh with a simplistic naivete, Krusiec manages to evoke such intimate complexity all while speaking a language most likely foreign to the majority of the audience.
However, despite Krusiec’s agile ability to cut through these cultural barriers, the direction of the play felt bizarrely disconnected. In the middle of scene changes, when the lights went black and the set pieces swiveled back and forth, an abrasive soundtrack of what can only be described as Chinese/hip-hop/techno fusion blasted throughout the theater. After moments of near-tragic emotional heft, these interludes of upbeat dance music felt completely disjointed from the weightier content of the play.
This may seem like a slight criticism about questionable musical choice, but the disjunction experienced with the music occurs throughout the play as a whole. Ironically, the intended divisions — the linguistic and cultural differences — are not the elements that prove alienating. There are some supreme laughs that arise from the premise of one, pale schlub stuck in a foreign environment. But, built into that premise is also the tale of a failing business, and a profound sadness ensues. Just as Cavanaugh is confused about the customs of China, “Chinglish” is a play torn between tragedy and comedy — attempting both with lackluster achievement. At the end, the show isn’t so much lost in translation as it is just lost.
Jessica Pena is the lead theater critic. Contact Jessica at [email protected]