NEW YORK — David Henry Hwang's direct-from-Chicago comedy "Chinglish" arrives on Broadway amid a crowded fall for new American plays. This arresting and amusing riff on the innumerable translation problems — of language, culture, love — that result when Westerners try to make overtures across the Pacific has broadened (and tensed up) on the eastward migration of director Leigh Silverman's production. But "Chinglish" remains a fascinating comic bookend to "M. Butterfly," the more serious and softer-gauzed 1988 play that launched the career of America's foremost dramatic chronicler of East-West relations.
In "M. Butterfly," the East was a suppliant, erotic, objectified, feminized other, a seductive mistress but only when demure. In "Chinglish," a Western man again falls in love with a beautiful Chinese object of desire — but this time he's a washed-up Ohio businessman, the human detritus of American failure looking for a personal bailout, and she's a shrewd, confident government insider using mind and body for her own ends.
"Chinglish" is one of the very few plays to try to get to grips with — let alone get laughs from — the stunning and artistically underexplored sea change in China's status over the last 20 years. Aptly enough, Thursday's opening night at the Longacre Theatre in New York came right after China had announced that it would assume more European debt, effectively bailing out some of its former masters.
Although demonstrably obsessed with China, Americans remain deeply ambivalent — or deeply in denial — about what and how much this means. That's understandable. Americans are in the strange position of buying cheap consumer goods from the very country that now props up their deficit, and the Chinese-American Hwang both embodies this ambivalence and is the one best placed to call it out. And so he does here — while simultaneously delivering a farce of misunderstanding that will appeal to the kind of weary, jet-lagged person of international business whose floundering travails are at the heart of the play.
The central comic thesis of "Chinglish" — that Americans and Chinese are doomed to misunderstand each other because of their semiotic incompatibilities — only takes the show so far. It is, for all its apparent malleability, one repeatable gag, easily exploited by Hwang's choice to make his central character a maker of translated signs, looking for a Chinese contract to rescue Cleveland's washed-up Ohio Signage Inc. But it's the new power structure bubbling below the jokes, Hwang's savvy sense of the evolution in the tools of Chinese seduction and in the nature of Western vulnerability, that gives the show its restless undercurrent.
Some significant changes have been made since the play's premiere last spring at the Goodman Theatre. As Peter, the teacher turned fixer, the earnest if less-than-subtle British actor Stephen Pucci is now playing a character of his own nationality (Peter is no longer Australian). But he's still throwing himself full-tilt into his numerous Mandarin lines, an especially delicious comic incongruity on a Broadway stage.
More significant, Gary Wilmes has taken over the lead role of the Ohio businessman Daniel. The rest of the cast remains the same as in Chicago, as, for the most part, does Silverman's mostly successful direction and David Korins' savvy, spinning Chinese box of a set.
Wilmes offers a fluid, quirky, restless performance of greater comedic sophistication in a Jon Stewart-like mode, but not the requisite vulnerability when it really matters. You don't see an Ohioan brought believably to his knees; Wilmes keeps on dancing a few beats too long.
As his shrewd Vice Minister partner, though, the remarkable Jennifer Lim delivers another compelling performance that nails the delicate dance of a modern Chinese woman through tradition, socialism, sex and power.
At Wednesday's matinee, aptly enough, a reporter for China Daily was interviewing audience members outside on 48th Street, looking for reactions. As Americans blinked into a camera lens no doubt made in China, neither words nor understanding seemed to come easily.
"Chinglish" plays on Broadway at the Longacre Theatre, 220 W. 48th St., New York. Call 212-239-6200 or visit chinglishbroadway.com.Copyright © 2015, RedEye