By Larry Taylor/Garden Grove Journal
Those who have visited China have probably laughed at inept English renditions of common signs – “Take notice of safe: the slippery are very crafty” (Translation “Slippery- Be Careful”; “Deformed Man’s Toilet” (Read “Handicapped Restrooms”); and “Stay Off the Grass” becomes in Mandarin: “Tender Fragrant Grass, How Hardhearted to Trample Them.”
Botched communication, as well, is always a hazard when Americans do business in the often inscrutable Chinese world. This is the hilarious, sometimes serious theme of Tony Award winner David Henry Hwang’s “Chinglish,” now in its West Coast premiere in a fine production at South Coast Repertory.
Director Leigh Silverman brings the play here fresh from a successful Broadway run. The plot concerns an American sign company trying to do business with the Chinese. The owner Daniel (naive but eager in the excellent hands of Alex Moggridge) figures that since he has seen many badly translated signs at Chinese venues, such as the recent Olympics, his Ohio company can do a better job and save embarrassment to local owners. To help him do this, he has hired an American teacher, Peter, (an ambitious though inept Brian Nishii) who is fluent in Chinese to be his translator and advisor.
Much of the play’s dialogue is in Mandarin, the national dialect, but we have no problems understanding what is going on, given the supertitles above the stage. In fact, much is humorously misinterpreted by inept translators (Celeste Den, very funny here).
Peter sets up a meeting with the officials in charge of building a new cultural center and sets up a pitch to create the English signs. Daniel, himself, makes the presentation to Minister Cai (a crafty Raymond Ma), bureaucrat in charge, and his female assistant Xi Yan (a sexy and enigmatic Michelle Krusiec).
As Daniel gives his sales talk and as the translators give their version, there is room for much disparity between what is said and what is translated. This makes for big laughs from the audience..
As negotiations proceed, relationships are formed, and we come to see that not everything is as it seems – true for the Chinese; just as true for the Americans. Xi Yan seems to become an advocate for Daniel as Minister Cai wavers on the deal.
Soon, in fact, Xi Yan and Daniel begin an affair. How far it will go and how the two will be affected by their relationship is given a complex answer. Here, we see how the two societies look at the institution of marriage. She is married to a judge; Daniel has a family in the States.
At this point, the play deals with the serious emotional implications of the tryst. In the business issue, we, also, get a revealing insight into how political maneuvering is a big part of the Chinese commerce game.
The production is handsomely mounted with a revolving set, designed by David Korins, that seamlessly changes to a government meeting room, a posh hotel lobby, and a lavish hotel bedroom. Costumes, ranging from Chinese-severe to decorative-oriental are superbly crafted by Nancy A. Palmatier.
“Chinglish” plays Through Feb. 24 on Segerstrom Stage at SCR.