‘Chinglish’ is a two-act, double-barreled comic winner
It’s a clever dismemberment of East-West cultural differences and the mind-muddles created by shoddy translation.
And it’s consistently funny.
The laughter starts even before “Chinglish” — a two-act bilingual comedy at the Berkeley Rep — begins.
Humdrum theater messages about shutting off cell phones and finding exits in case of emergency become a gigglefest by being simulcast incomprehensibly in Mandarin and English.
Mostly, the show’s hilarity doesn’t translate well in a review — the best lines just don’t work on paper.
On stage and in context, though, hilarity is guaranteed.
I guess you have to be there.
As the play unfolds, playwright David Henry Hwang and director Leigh Silverman rarely wait for one chuckle to subside before beckoning the next. I sometimes felt as if I were witnessing a stand-up’s jackhammer delivery rather than a two-hour production.
Supertitle projections of mangled English translations — readable white letters against a gray backdrop — added a steady stream of chortles.
The story, which underscores cultural, political and relationship gaps between citizens of the United States and China, focuses on an ineffectual American salesman and ex-Enron lackey (Daniel Cavanaugh, portrayed exquisitely by Alex Moggridge) who has traveled to Asia to lock up a game-changing contract for his family’s sign-making business.
He quickly becomes entangled with a sexy bureaucrat (Michelle Krusiec as Xi Yan), a British teacher masquerading as a consultant (Brian Nishii playing Peter), and a Communist minister trapped in a futile attempt to save face and freedom (Larry Lei Zhang as Cai).
Krusiec foreshadows the verbal shenanigans that lie ahead when, following a torrent of English words, she declares in Mandarin, “I didn’t catch a word.”
He later offers a perfect parallel to define the farce: “I don’t have a clue what’s really going on around here.”
One set piece, in which the enigmatic phrase “through the back door” repeatedly jumps out, is particularly engaging. Even more sidesplitting is an intercultural jumbled-word exchange reminiscent of the classic Abbott & Costello “Who’s on First” routine.
I also enjoyed watching Moggridge and Krusiec banter at length with a zero-sum understanding until, exhausted, they seemingly agree on a lone point and gleefully high-five each other.
Massive miscommunications tend to retain a vise-like grip on the audience’s funnybone. Such as when Moggridge tries to mumble “I love you” in Mandarin but it comes out, the third time around, as “Frog loves to pee.”
The more serious shades of “Chinglish” brought to my mind the real-life scandal revolving around Gu Kailai, wife of deposed political leader Bo Xilai. She was just given a two-year reprieve from the death penalty imposed for murdering a British businessman, and that is likely to be reduced to a life sentence.
For the record, there’s no reference in this play — which was written before the scandal erupted — to murder.
But the 55-year-old, Los Angeles-born Hwang, who won a Tony for “M. Butterfly” and an Obie for “Yellow Face,” obviously can “kill” at the box office. He just received a $200,000 Steinberg Distinguished Playwright Award for his body of solo work covering a 32-year span.
For “Chinglish,” on the other hand, he worked closely with a translator — because Hwang speaks only English.
The show, a co-production with the South Coast Repertory, had a four-month Broadway run starting in October 2011. After playing in Costa Mesa next January, it will go to Hong Kong, where it will be a March festival entry.
In Berkeley, revolving, beautifully designed sets by David Korins prove how rapidly locales can be switched.
And basic-black, we-mean-business costumes by Anita Yavich are impeccably functional. Brilliantly contrasting is her outlandish garb for a male Chinese translator: white shoes and ostentatious argyle sweater.
Sound by Darron L. West (particularly effective between scenes) and lighting by Brian MacDevitt (stretching from subtle to blinding) are both executed seamlessly and augment theatergoers’ pleasure.
“Chinglish” has time to play with only a few of the 10,000 Chinese calligraphy characters that comprise the language. Despite that, the show’s clearly a double-barreled winner.
With that appraisal in mind, I’m convinced you should seriously consider seeing it — twice, perhaps.
“Chinglish” plays at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre‘s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley, through Oct. 21. Night performances, Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Wednesdays and Sundays, 7 p.m. Matinees, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays, 2 p.m. Tickets: $14.50 to $99, subject to change, (510) 647-2949 or www.berkeleyrep.org.