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Ch'ing·lish

David Henry Hwang
Longacre Theatre, New York
(2011)

David Henry Hwang, the man behind M Butterfly and writer of the book for Sir Elton John’s Broadway Aida must be the perfect man to create this comedy of cultural misunderstanding.

There must be few other such accomplished playwrights who could create a work that constantly switches between (surtitled) Mandarin and English, as a means of conveying the differences between the two countries currently vying for global commercial supremacy.

The man in the middle is Cleveland-based Daniel Cavanaugh, ironically a salesman of translation products for cultural outlets. Will Ferrell lookalike Gary Wilmes plays a man desperate to rescue the family business after enduring his own crisis as an executive at Enron.

His rescue plan involves persuading the powers that be in the Chinese backwater of Guiyang that they need to use his company’s product.

His main support initially comes from Peter Timms, a “consultant” who has spent the last 19 years in the country and long ago gone native.

His sobriquet amongst the locals, “Teacher Peter”, gives away the insecure ambassador’s true profession but his subterfuge is mirrored by every one that we meet.

Cavanaugh soon tries his own supplementary tactic to find a way through the cultural minister’s defences. When Larry Lei Zhang’s Cai becomes obstructive in order to protect a contract that lies with his sister-in-law, the obvious route is to court his Vice Minister, Jennifer Lim’s Xi Yan.

A hilarious scene of misunderstandings between the pair prefigures many more but leads to an unexpected Sino-American union that looks set to offer a happy ending.

However, this intricately plotted comedy has much more to amuse its audience before a satisfying denouement that leaves honour intact for all except the disgraced minister, who pays for corruption no worse than anyone else’s with his job.

There are many reasons to enjoy Ch’ing·lish, which originally premiered at the Goodman in Chicago. The use of translation technology of the kind that our hero is trying to flog presents many extremely funny moments. It also allows us to understand the difficulties of bringing together people who not only speak different languages but have value systems with almost nothing in common.

As such, this is a thought-provoking play about how the future might develop as the West courts China and it responds in kind.

On a set designed by David Korins that is based on a double revolve and sensibly cuts down the stage space, the team of bilingual actors moves swiftly between scenes and locations always convincing viewers that the action really is taking place in China.

Under the expert direction of Leigh Silverman, Gary Wilmes and Jennifer Lin work well together in love and war, guaranteeing that audiences will have a good time as well as learning a great deal about today’s commercial world as viewed from the far side of The Great Wall.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher