If you follow international news — or any news, really — chances are you have at least a passing familiarity with disgraced Chinese politician Bo Xilai, his murder-convict wife Gu Kailai, and his pampered son Bo Guagua. Their intertwined storylines could be fodder for an epic screenplay.
Or a stage drama. David Henry Hwang’s new play, Chinglish, was likely written before much of the Gu Kailai murder plot came to light — it premiered in New York last year, and opened at Berkeley Rep last week, under the direction of Leigh Silverman — which in many ways makes it eerily prescient. The Xilai of this story is a much more innocuous bureaucrat, Minister Cai (Larry Lei Zhang), whose only real crime is sending his son to a prestigious English university “through a back door” — meaning, with the help of a hapless English teacher named Peter (Brian Nishii), who expects a favor in return.
It turns out Peter’s idea of recompense is for Cai to contract with Ohio Signage, a one-man “family” company owned by Daniel Cavanaugh (Alex Moggridge), who is vying for an apparently lucrative gig placing signs on the minister’s new cultural center. Peter poses as Daniel’s consultant, and though the minister pooh-poohs their proposal, Daniel ultimately finds an ally in Cai’s Ice Queen vice mayor, Xi Yan (the svelte Michelle Krusiec). In a surreptitious meeting at a local restaurant, Xi Yan pledges to help Daniel, who, she says, has “an honest face.” But it’s unclear what her intentions are.
The layers of deception and political ambition run deep in this play, with characters constantly trying to outwit and dupe one another — no one is murdered, but each scene reveals a new, sinister subplot. But the play’s overarching theme is surprisingly simple: Misunderstandings frequently occur across cultures, no matter how much we try to avoid them. “Chinglish” is just a portmanteau of two utterly discrete languages, and Hwang’s way of saying that a lot can slip by in translation.
He demonstrates that easily, by having Daniel deliver an opening monologue — complete with PowerPoint — about, well, signs. It turns out that many of the English signs in China do little in the way of conveying information. He cites an example from the Chief Financial Office: “Financial Affairs Is Everywhere Long.” In an introductory meeting with Minister Cai, he presents two from restrooms: “Wash After Relief” and “Don’t Forget to Carry Your Thing.” Hilarious on the surface, these blunders only echo the ones that riddle their first colloquy. “His company is tiny and insignificant,” the translator, Miss Qian (Celeste Den) tells the minister, when Daniel tries to explain that Ohio Signage is a quaint, family-run firm. She speaks Mandarin, but the English translations appear on a large screen overhead. Though Hwang wrote the scene as a series of verbal gags, many of them seem entirely plausible.
And the perils of cross-cultural communication only deepen when Daniel and Xi Yan hold their first backroom meeting, which, of course, has the tenor of a flirtation, just to further complicate things. Xi Yan is a sleek, reedy, cat-eyed woman in dangerously high heels. Her command of two languages is the best of any character after Peter, and she uses it first to manipulate, then seduce. Moggridge plays Daniel as a guileless, lumpy Midwesterner. While he’s certainly in a position to exoticize Xi Yan, it doesn’t really seem within his character. Rather, he’s someone who needs to be yanked around, and who easily becomes complicit in his own exploitation.
Thus, a bumpy illicit romance compounds a parallel business courtship, as Daniel and Xi Yan flit between conference rooms, restaurants, and hotels. The sets, designed by David Korins, are a puzzle of revolving walls that create a sequence of claustrophobic environments: the hotel lobby with its brass-door elevator; a sour fish soup restaurant with calligraphy hanging from the walls; an office in Guiyang with swivel chairs and large watercolor paintings. Korins built the set on a pair of turntables that allow the walls to constantly shuffle between scenes, creating a fast-moving but boxy world. In an interview with Broadway.com, he described it as alternately “aspirational” and “pedestrian,” two adjectives that Hwang obviously associates with China’s culture at large.
That puzzle-piece world mirrors the byzantine plot of Chinglish, and the themes contained therein. It’s scarily topical, littered with references to the Enron scandal, East-West diplomacy, and China’s changing position on the axis of world economic powers — not to mention recent news events. But the ideas are also timeless. International trade deals are delicate, fleeting things; mistranslation, on the other hand, is here forever.