I’ve had more than my share of encounters, and recent ones, with language…well, I won’t call them “barriers” but more borders. I’ve free-lanced with a Korean creative team, I’ve braved Cyrillic alphabets and bad Google translations to locate obscure Eastern bloc films; as an adapting musical dramatist, I’ve compared presumably direct translations of foreign-language source material and found myself flabbergasted at the differences in content and sensibility; and perhaps most relevantly here, I have a fascination with cheap Chinese combo-function electronics, and every so often I visit their websites and read the broken English item descriptions, and occasionally engage in baffling correspondences with the vendors, who answer your questions yet don’t.
So I was fascinated by the premise of David Henry Hwang’s latest, Ch’ing•lish. In it, a callow American businessman, Daniel (Gary Wilmes) seeks to expand his business into China. The business is signage, and he is trying to land an account with the Chinese government to provide multi-language signs for an internationally-important complex, on which the translations would be accurate, rather than the starkly distorted Chinese literalizations of Western idiom. With the help of subtitles showing us just how such translations go wrong even in the live conversation of negotiation, we see Daniel employing his own translator and self-styled “consultant” Peter (Stephen Pucci) to protect him from Chinese translators, well-intentioned but inept, on the other side. There’s quite an intricate game afoot, to achieve what should be a simple goal. For while Daniel’s intended client, Minister Cai Guoliang (Larry Lei Zhang) is busy saying yes, he will in fact be sending a subordinate later to say no. But that subordinate is his associate Xi Yan (Jennifer Lim) and she wants Daniel to get the contract. So she says. But she has to trust her advice over that of his consultant. Essentially then, there’s a game within a game within broken communication shrouded by ambiguity.
And a good deal of it is. Mostly the comedy of language and ettiquette, and the little paradigm shifts that illustrate vast differences in cultural perspective.
But what should allow for some emotional investment on our part comes across with an unfortunate sterility, and I think that may have its roots in the central character of Daniel. In the first place, the story of the play is framed by Daniel giving a lecture to other potential business execs (us in the audience actually) who may contemplate following in his wake to stake a claim in the East. It’s an amusing lecture with slideshow examples of bad signage to set the premise. And that’s the first problem: When we meet Daniel, he’s already emotionally resolved; we therefore have no expectation that in the inevitable flashback that comprises the body of the play, he’ll ever be in unresolvable trouble. Plus, since his lecture primes us for a “how I learned what I learned” story, we’re set up to spend time with a cipher. Despite having an active objective, technically speaking, he gives the impression of being primarily reactive, even when he’s being adaptive. So there’s no one dynamic at the play’s center (even though he's surrounded by idiosyncratic characters). And finally, unfortunately, there’s simply the casting of Gary Wilmes. He has a limited, bumbling charm, but beyond that, he’s a little stiff and a little dull. And since the energy of a comedy is fueled by the lead player, this allows everyone else to be (or anyway to seem) a little more subdued than they would be with a hotter presence to play off.
Leigh Silverman has directed cleanly and clearly, and has applied a brisk enough pace, so Ch’ing•lish is always entertaining.
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