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Jeff

Monday, November 7, 2011

REVIEW: Ch'ing.lish

Review of the November 5 evening performance at the Longacre Theatre on Broadway in New York City. 2 hours, 5 minutes, including one intermission. Starring Jennifer Lim, Gary Wilmes and Larry Lei Zhang. A new play by David Henry Hwang. Directed by Leigh Zimmerman.

Grade: B-

I find it interesting that a play about the cultural disconnect between East and West, and the romantic disconnect between men and women is written by a male Chinese-American playwright and directed by a female American director, David Henry Hwang and Leigh Zimmerman, respectively.  The play, Chinglish, a huge hit in Chicago, has made the move to Broadway, and with it, a rare thing these days - a genuine comedic play.

While it isn't nearly as artistic, grand and downright thrilling as his most famous work, M. Butterfly, Hwang's latest is a well-formed, intelligent and frequently hilarious comedy of manners crossed with a modern-day sex farce.  And though it could use a little trimming in act one so that it feels less like a one-joke story, it offers up some pretty funny situations and some sharp observations about both modern China and a faltering American economy and society.  Toss in some astute observations about the cultural differences between not only the Chinese and American way of doing business, but also about the surprising political ramifications of sex outside of marriage, and you have a potentially filling evening of theatre.  (And it isn't all exactly what you'd expect, either!)

Jennifer Lim and Gary Wilmes

When one takes on such a topic (or topics), one risks confronting the ominous spectre of racism and sexism.  And the line between reality and stereotype is a thin one.  In Chinglish, there is a very funny sequence where an ill-equipped translator bridges the gap for an American businessman and a Chinese cultural minister.  The actress who plays the translator, Angela Lin, does a terrific job and her timing and physicality are first rate.  But she has also been directed to go wide-eyed at revelations, squinch every part of her body, including her eyes, shoulders and legs when she giggles shamelessly and pronounces her English "r" like an "l".  Well, we all know that stereotypes are just that because there is an element of truth in them.  The rest of her performance reveals beyond a doubt that she is not trying to be a stereotype (or that she was directed to be one).  But one has to wonder, if, say, Ken Ludwig had written this play, wouldn't everyone be crying foul?

Similarly, one might wonder if a male director would have taken such care to make sure that the female characters in the play weren't simply air-headed sillys or power-hungry sex kittens.  To be sure, Ms. Zimmerman has been very careful not to make the above-mentioned female translator a one-note dummy, and the lead female character simply a woman who uses sex as a way to manipulate and amp up her political power (more about her in a minute).  One wishes that the same could be said for their male counterparts - an egg-headed geek of a male translator, and the ambivalent cultural minister who lets his emotions weaken him.  (Again, we are in perilously close quarters to the emasculated Asian man stereotype here.)

Set Design by David Korins
Projections by Jeff Sugg and Shawn Duan

To be perfectly clear, though, Chinglish isn't trying to be that deep and socially poignant.  It really is at its heart a funny farce, complete with misunderstandings, true identities hidden, and hilarious arguments.  All that is missing is the running around and door slamming.  But this production has that same feel - breathless timing and a set that does the door slamming for the cast.  Yes, Chinglish changes locales so frequently that it amounts to the door slamming.  The brilliant set design (and almost sure Tony nomination) by David Korins moves on turntables with the precision of a merry-go-round, while furniture whisks in and out at race car speed.  The sheer austerity and modern lines at once suggests classic Asian minimalism (so chic these days in Manhattan boutique hotels) and the ultra modern element so crucial in China's "westernization."  And not to worry classic farce fans, Mr. Korins has adorned each set with doors for the working-class stand-ins of the cast to enter and exit while the action goes on around them.  Most hilariously, there is the world's fastest hotel elevator door, and somewhat sluggish revolving door, and more typically, the hotel door/bathroom door combination.  And central to the entire play is the projection of the Chinese translations (by Candace Chong) which are skillfully placed around the various sets for maximum effect, designed by Jeff Sugg and Shawn Duan.


East Meets West: Johhny Wu, Stephen Pucci
Jrnnifer Lim, Gary Wilmes and those hotel doors!
 One needs sharp direction with attention to details that the audience can pick up easily - almost subliminally - and a cast up to the pacing needed to make a large amount of verbal humor consistently riotous.  Chinglish has that in Ms. Zimmerman and her cast of seven.  In multiple roles ranging from hotel workers to translators to Committee representatives, Angela Lin, Christine Lin and Johnny Wu walk that fine line between stereotype and genuineness with the craft of a highwire team working without a net.  They are precise and superbly timed with a cheeky spontaneity.

Let's Make Deal: Stephen Pucci, Gary Wilmes,
Angela Lin and Larry Lei Zhang

To equalize things, Hwang has set up both an Eastern and a Western sleaze ball.  Both men are on the take, doing everything they can to manipulate things to maintain lifestyles they love.  The Westerner, a business consultant with a questionable past and even more questionable motives is played with a transparent slickness by Stephen Pucci.  That transparency, for the record, is key to helping us either to take sides or avoid them altogether.  Slightly less transparent, due mainly to a ferocious need to appear in control for the powers that be, Larry Lei Zhang does a great job as both the flustered comrade of the People's Republic and sweeter guy with a love of opera and some family troubles.

As the Midwestern American businessman in China to make a deal to manufacture signage for a new cultural center, Gary Wilmes is an interesting and spot-on representation of middle America (he's from Ohio, naturally) trying to be the go-getter, hardworking, morally upright good guy.  He talks too much, which tickles the would-be business partners and turns on a certain female who might just hold his future in her hands, and in doing so, reveals a not-too-surprising duplicity of criminal proportions, which his would-be partners misconstrue as a humbling on his part and a discovery that makes him pretty much their hero.  Wilmes plays both sides of that coin along with an almost Jimmy Stewart-like aw shucks-ness.  This all-American combination of "values" and get ahead craftiness does plenty to balance those stereotype scales.

Gary Wilmes in Chinglish

Stephen Pucci and Jennifer Lim in Chinglish

Playing a character with many sides and easily the best written role - no small feat when you consider that a good portion of it is in Mandarin Chinese - gives plenty to work with for actress Jennifer Lim, who could very well get a Tony nomination for her efforts.  And she plays each facet of her character with a razor sharp wit, rapid fire delivery and smooth sexiness usually reserved for Bond girls.  Oh, and she's very, very funny, too.  Her scenes with Mr. Wilmes, generally the longest but most pleasantly paced, also benefit from a charmingly awkward and easy chemistry that feels very real.  Their scenes have the heart of the show in them rather than just the slam-bam farcical fun.  That's not to say that they drag or are unnecessarily inflated.  No, they give the show a needed touch of real emotion for the audience to chew on while it takes a collective breath.

Somehow, though, considering the state of foreign affairs and the world economy that play heavily in the machinations of the plot, I was left feeling surprisingly under-nourished.  My funny bone more than sated, my brain was left wanting.  You don't bring up things like Enron, Chinese globalization and American economic failure and then not give us something to think about while we laugh.

Instead of narrowly avoiding stereotypes like Mr. Hwang does, let me end with one as metaphor: Chinglish is a full meal of laughs (and a lot of fun to watch), but about 20 minutes after it is over, you realize you aren't still full, and all you have to show for it is a bland cookie and a meaningless fortune. 

(Production photos by Michael McCabe)


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Jeff
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