Chinglish

Ben Miles Reviews - Theater
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“Chinglish” is what it’s called when the spoken or written English language is mixed, mashed, modified, or mutilated with or by the Chinese language."Chinglish," typically used as a pejorative or depreciative term, is also referred to as “Sinicized English,” “Chinese English,” or, simply, “China English” – and is, usually, ungrammatical or nonsensical in quality, if not intent.

Chinglish is also the title of Tony-Award Winning dramatist David Henry Hwang’s 2011 play, now in production at Costa Mesa’s South Coast Repertory Theatre, through February 24.  And what an enjoyable entertainment it is watching Hwang’s exploration of modern-day ethnic and linguistic divisions. Hwang’s clever conceit makes it clear: Even with rapid advancements in technology, those ancient and deeply ingrained cultural chasms separate us as much, or more, today than the Tower of Babel ever portended.

The play is about Daniel Cavanaugh (an ingratiating Alex Moggridge). Daniel is now in charge of his Cleveland-based family business, a signage design company, and currently has the opportunity to land a lucrative contract in China, where sign messages too often are mangled due to poor or inaccurate translations.

For instance, English speaking tourist and business travelers are likely to encounter such sign alerts as “Slip Carefully,” meaning “Don’t Slip” or “Deformed Man’s Toilet”, for “Handicapped Restroom,” or “The Civilized and Tidy Circumstance is a Kind of Enjoyment,” for “Don’t Litter.” But Daniel ignores what is taught as the first and last rule of doing business in China: Always bring your own translator. Instead, he enlists the services of Peter (a surprisingly solid Brian Nishii), an English ex-pat who’s been teaching English in China for the last twenty years, as his translator.  Further, Daniel forgets another unwritten rule of business, whether local or global: don’t mix work with romance.

When Daniel falls for the ambitious Chinese bureaucrat, Xi Yan (a beautifully lean and fully comical Michelle Krusiec), complications ensue. Not only does Daniel have a wife and children back home in Ohio, Xi Yan is married to a Chinese judge and party official. Amidst the lovers’ assignations and the sales' negotiations, playwright Hwang details the social and verbal schisms that exist in this age of instant communications and globalization. Saying what you mean and meaning what you say is easier said than done in this era of internationalism. Is it any wonder that world politics is such a diplomatic minefield, regularly exploding, literally and figuratively, with misunderstandings, misalliances, and missed opportunities?

Directed by Leigh Silverman, with state-of-the-art efficiency, and aided by extraordinary production values, David Korins’ set design works like a well-oiled machine, with no detectable effort or strain. Brian MacDevitt’s lighting motif, Darron L. West’s sound-scape, and Nancy A. Palmatier’s costumes [based on Anita Yavich’s original concepts] all serve to enliven and enrich this show.

Chinglish’s success, in addition to Hwang’s thoughtful and pertinent script and Silverman’s dynamic direction, is in no small part due to the crafty cast of seven actors. Not only are several members of the ensemble required to speak their dialogue in Mandarin and English (easily read subtitles are inventively used here), all performers demonstrate good sense of dramatic and meticulous comedic timing, as well as emotional authenticity – including Raymond Ma as Minister Cai; Austin Ku as Bing and as Judge Geming; Celeste Den as Miss Qian and as Prosecutor Li; and Vivian Chiu as Zhao.

For anyone interested in the ever-changing state of socio-economic affairs of our diverse planet, packaged as believable business transactions and genuine human interactions, Chinglish is a smart and relevant effort meant for more mature audiences.

Chinglish continues at South Coast Repertory through February 24. The theater is located at 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday and at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays. Matinees are at 2:30 Saturdays. For reservations, call (714) 708-5555. For online ticketing and further details, visit www.scr.org.