Tony-winning playwright David Henry Hwang's Chinglish has enjoyed some notable longevity in its geopolitical relevance since it premiered over a decade ago, and SF Playhouse's new production is a slickly executed and well-acted version with loads of well-timed laughs.
The art of translation, and its many pitfalls, is at the heart of Chinglish, which Hwang wrote during a decidedly different moment in Chinese-American relations. It's the story of an American businessman who, while trying to pull his Ohio-based sign company out of a financial hole in the wake of the Great Recession, goes to China to score a contract with a mid-size city that's building a cultural arts center.
The businessman, Daniel (Michael Barrett Austin), employs a translator and cultural consultant, an affable Brit who's fluent in Mandarin named Peter (Matthew Bohrer), who seems to have an in with the local minister. But meanwhile, the minister's office has hired its own translator for their first meeting, Miss Qian (played hilariously by Sharon Shao), who translates the phrase "I appreciate your American frankness" as "The minister likes your rudeness."
Non-Mandarin speakers know of the mistranslation because of the supertitles that are projected throughout the show — a key element of Hwang's comedy that SF Playhouse Artistic Director Bill English notes is very difficult to pull off, timing-wise.
A subsequent meeting with the female vice-minister, Xi Yan (Nicole Tung), reveals to Daniel that all is not as it seems with her boss's positivity about the contract. And almost immediately, she and Daniel are having an affair in his hotel room that is less about business and more about a woman trapped in an unhappy marriage doing her best to find a little joy for herself.
Hwang's play takes on added dimensions with this side-plot which end up entirely intertwined with the business deal at hand, and accusations of corruption — which have been a key element of Chinese Communist Party rule under current president Xi Jinping. But without too many spoilers, let's just say that Xi Yan and Daniel end up mutually benefiting one another, and Xi Yan ends up being a far more effective cultural liaison than Peter.
The pleasures of the play lie mostly in the many, very funny misunderstandings that occur between Daniel, Xi Yan, and the Chinese officials — for instance, in their first private conversation, Xi Yan, whose English is limited, keeps using the word "sleepy" to mean "tiring," saying things like "You sleepy" and "I'm sleeping with you."
But Hwang pulls of plenty of pathos in between in the relationship between Daniel and Xi Yan, and the success of this production lies primarily with the stellar performance by Ms. Tung, who provides the emotional heart of the show.
Jeffrey Lo's deft direction deserves special praise as well, given the number of comic beats that need to be hit just right. And the simple set design utilizing sets of sliding screens by designer Andrea Bechert also works very well.
While America and China continue to appear to have escalating tensions in real life, which may or may not culminate in armed conflict someday, Chinglish reflects the realm in which Chinese and American businesspeople continue to try to peacefully —and sometimes successfully — negotiate for their own mutual benefit. There's plenty of money to be made from Chinese contracts, Daniel tells an imagined audience of Ohio business folk in the opening of the play. "But always bring your own translator," he warns.
'Chinglish' plays through June 10 at SF Playhouse (450 Post Street). Find tickets here.
Top image: Judge Xu Geming (Phil Wong), translator Zhao (Xun Zhang), prosecutor Li (Sharon Shao), American sign maker Daniel Cavanaugh (Michael Barrett Austin), and vice minister of culture Xi Yan (Nicole Tung) attempt to communicate about business in San Francisco Playhouse's "Chinglish," performing May 4 - June 10. Photo by Jessica Palopoli