David Henry Hwang’s new Broadway play Chinglish at the Longacre Theater, directed by Leigh Silverman, follows the bumbling escapades of American Businessman (and former Enron executive) David Cavanaugh (Gary Wilmes) as he tries to win a deal for his sign-making company in China. The story begins as Mr. Cavanaugh listens to advice from his “consultant” Peter Timms (Stephen Pucci) about how to succeed in corporate China. Mr. Timms explains that the Chinese admire big gamblers, regardless of whether or not they win or lose. This is a fitting opening to the play; which, as a bi-lingual Broadway show, is a big gamble itself. The super-titles projected onto the set in translation of the Chinese offered many laugh-out-loud moments as only the audience could understand the comic miscommunication occurring onstage. The biggest laughs of the night were achieved through the super-title translation; and yet the necessity of constantly reading the super-titles distracted from the facial expression and nuance of the actors.
Mr. Hwang’s script also lacked nuance in the stereotypical caricature of the manipulating, scheming Chinese businesswoman Xi Yan (Jennifer Lim), and the inept, uncomprehending American man David Cavanaugh who carries on an inevitable affair with Xi Yan. Mr. Hwang’s script embraced stereotype without confronting it, which left the main characters feeling rather brittle. The more interesting character was that of Peter Timms, the English teacher living in China posing as a business consultant. Stephen Pucci’s portrayal of Peter Timms was sincere and lovable. The other unexpected star of Chinglish was Minister Cai Guoliang, portrayed with endearing naiveté by Larry Lei Zhang.
The recurring motif of miscommunication was mirrored by the modern music between set changes which was garbled and confused, and sounded like many people talking at once. The chic set which rotated between the business office, hotel room, and hotel lobby emphasized the staggering speed of China’s charge into modernity.
In the end, Mr. Hwang’s Chinglish gamble paid off with an amusing, if somewhat trite, night of theater most relatable to anyone who speaks Chinese, or has a business background.