Are you an American? Do you speak a foreign language with any fluency? Of course not. This assumption forms one of the core jokes in David Henry Hwang's new play Chinglish, which comes to Berkeley Rep after stints on Broadway and in Chicago. It's a hilarious, biting, terrifically written play, and this production shows off the talents of the Rep's staff (and director Leigh Silverman) to great effect.
The play is set in modern-day China, with two brief monologues framing the story at the beginning and end set three years ahead of the story. At the center of the play is Ohio businessman Daniel Cavanaugh (played with a great deal of earnestness and some manufactured swagger by Alex Moggridge) who comes to the smallish city of Guiyang to try to win a contract for his family's sign business. (An official in Guiyang says at one point, in Mandarin to someone on the phone, "We are not a large city. Only four million.") He enlists the help of another Westerner, a man named Peter who presents himself as a consultant who can help him build relationships with the right people in order to win this business.
The other main player is the vice-minister of culture for Guiyang, a woman named Xi Yan (Michelle Krusiec), who appears at first to be Cavanaugh's adversary but ultimately becomes his friend, ally, and [SPOILER ALERT] lover. The drama that plays out is too delicious to spoil, and bears some striking and completely coincidental similarities to the recent scandal in the city of Chongqing where a party official and his wife were recently investigated in the death of a British businessman, who was apparently having an affair with the wife. But what Hwang accomplishes brilliantly in his script is to explore the variously hilarious, and unfortunate, and tragic ways that certain pieces of culture can not be translated for instance, the Chinese love of false modesty, scandal, and greed, and Americans' obsession with romantic love, and justice. The play is, quite literally, half in Mandarin and translated via projected subtitles on different parts of the stage, and this is where most of the comedy of the play exists. Xi says to Daniel at one point, "You sleepy," meaning he's tiring her, and then, "I sleeping with you," meaning she's being tiring/tedious too. At another point, a hired translator takes a Chinese minister's phrase, "I appreciate your American frankness," and translates it as, "The minister likes your rudeness." Also, references are made to a handicapped bathroom sign in a Shanghai theater that was unfortunately given the English translation of "Deformed Man's Toilet."
There are elaborate, quick, and dynamic scene changes via a revolving group of sets designed by David Korins (who also did the set for the Broadway production), and we were struck by the polish and smoothness of it throughout. And the entire cast is top-notch, but we have to give a special mention to hilarious mugging and comic timing of supporting player Celeste Den, who had us breathless with laughter in two of her main scenes.
Suffice it to say Daniel gets a thorough education in the ways of the Chinese government, and the ways of the Chinese heart, even though saying the word "heart" in China is probably just going to conjure an organ best served grilled.
Chinglish plays through October 7 at Berkeley Rep. Tickets here, but be sure to order by phone if you're under 30 for a discount.