Not long after Ted Fishman wrote the book “China, Inc.,” I accompanied him on a trip to Shanghai, where he was to deliver a series of talks to American business leaders eager to gain access to this mysterious land of unprecedented opportunity. Shortly after landing at Pudong International Airport, I found myself not only caught up in the exotic excitement inherent in cultural tourism, but also succumbing to the infectious fever of capitalism raging in what seemed to be its rawest native state here in the cradle of Communism. Before long I was conjuring up ways that I too might strike gold in this frontier of fortune. Not till I got back home did I come to my senses and realize, as intoxicating as it all was, that in spite of the trappings of American capitalism—the shiny skyscrapers, the epic billboards, the smoggy traffic jams—China is a country that plays by very different rules. Not only are the practices of law regarding rights, contracts and justice bent wildly out of our frame, but very basic social customs are irreconcilably foreign and not especially hospitable to outsiders seeking a piece of this economic miracle.
David Henry Hwang’s “Chinglish,” now in its world-premiere production at the Goodman Theatre, explores these nuances through the prism of communication. Chinglish is the mangled-in-translation Chinese version of English, most famously manifest in public signs, and Hwang’s play finds no shortage of uproarious humor in such; in fact, his American character Daniel Cavanaugh is a manufacturing executive from Cleveland hoping to restore his family’s fortune by making the signs for the city of Guiyang’s new cultural center. As the American child of a Chinese immigrant, Hwang has the benefit of dual insight; he knows that the jokes play on both sides, and through translated Mandarin, we see the idiotic things being articulated by Daniel as he tries to grab hold of a language where a word means very different things based on subtle variations of tonality in pronunciation. Though “lost in translation” is not an especially new idea—virtually any “foreign” culture is going to offer up its own peculiarities—it seems to offer up an endless supply of laughs here nonetheless.
If that’s all “Chinglish” was about, it would be little more than a two-hour sketch comedy. But Hwang’s interested in something more, something deeper as he exposes the vast cultural gaps that exist between the two nations that everyone expects to define global economics and politics in this new century. There are words in Chinese for which there is no English translation; so too nuances of the human existence as basic as friendship, love and marriage have found very different expression in cultural traditions that have developed in parallel but not in tandem over the millennia. “In the end,” one expat warns another, “it’s not about you. It’s never about you.” In other words, come and play, Americans, and we will use you for our ends, but in the end, it’s all about us, the Chinese. This is a bitter pill for those of us who, in spite of our nation’s history of racial insensitivity, cling romantically to the idea that a first-generation immigrant can bootstrap his way from rags to riches in America. Proponents of “American exceptionalism” should hear the echoes, though.
James Waterston brings just the right measure of Midwestern aw-shucks to the role of Daniel, a “good man” who seems conveniently blind to the larger repercussions of his actions; Jennifer Lim’s somewhat-bilingual Xu Yan seems completely natural slipping back and forth between native Mandarin and stilted English even as she nails the portrayal of the buttoned-up bureaucrat with mysterious motivations; Stephen Pucci is entirely realistic as the Australian expat Peter Timms seeking to turn his good luck in being an early arrival in China into good fortune as a consultant to companies trying to find entree into The Middle Kingdom. Director Leigh Silverman may be new to the Goodman stage but not to the work of Hwang; she keeps things moving at a crisp pace, in spite of an especially complicated carousel of a set and the challenges of keeping a bilingual play entirely accessible.
To his credit, Hwang constructs a relatively small-stakes story about a down-on-his-luck American businessman finding a savvy (and bilingual) expat to help him navigate the nuances of culture and commerce in a Chinese bureaucracy as a metaphor for the all-in stakes facing the world right now, as globalization makes the world smaller much faster than our collective consciousness can grow to fully comprehend it. Fortunately, we have Hwang to translate. (Brian Hieggelke)
At Goodman Theatre, 170 North Dearborn, (312)443-3800. Through July 31. $25-$73.