Reviewed by Judy Richter
That's what the central character discovers in David Henry Hwang's "Chinglish," presented by Palo Alto Players.
Daniel Cavanaugh (Chris Mahle) runs a family-owned sign company in Cleveland and is trying to land the sign contract for a new cultural center in Guiyang, China. Officials there want to avoid embarrassing English translations such as "deformed man's toilet" on signs for restrooms for the disabled.
Because Daniel has never been to China and doesn't speak Mandarin, he hires a consultant, Peter Timms (Michael T. McCune), an Englishman who has spent several years in China and knows the language and customs.
His knowledge comes in handy during Daniel's first meeting with Minister Cai Guoliang (Jeffrey Sun) and Vice Minister Xi Yan (Joyce F. Liu) because their interpreter isn't always accurate in either her English or her Mandarin translations. English supertitles show the differences and aid the audience throughout the two-hour (one intermission) play.
Daniel soon learns that there's much he doesn't understand, especially when he, a married man, becomes involved in an ill-advised affair with a married woman.
The play is loaded with hilarious moments, many of them from miscommunication and botched translations.
Perhaps the most amusing scene occurs in the second act when Daniel again makes his pitch to Chinese officials. They listen politely until he tells them that he formerly worked for a firm whose financial misdeeds roiled the U.S. economy. Even though he assures them that he wasn't involved in any wrongdoing, they're excited and impressed that he knew some of the chief culprits.
Lily Tung Crystal is making her directoral debut with this production, but she has appeared in the play elsewhere and lived in China for nearly a decade. Thus she directs with a sure hand and with respect for cultural aspects of the play. She also is fortunate to have a skilled cast in which all of the actors except Mahle as Daniel speak Mandarin.
The cast also includes Dianna Hua Chung, Isabel Anne To and Phil Wong. each playing several characters.
The set by Kuo-Hao Lo (lit by Nick Kumamoto) revolves, facilitating scene changes. The character-appropriate costumes are by Y. Sharon Peng, the sound by Jeff Grafton.
Playwright Hwang is perhaps best known for his Tony-winning "M. Butterfly," which also looked at cultural differences between the East and West. His 2011 "Chinglish" is far more humorous, but there are serious undertones, too, making for a rewarding theatrical experience.
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