David Henry Hwang has long chronicled the complications of Asian and western cultures clashing with mostly deleterious effects. His play M. Butterfly, which premiered on Broadway in 1988, famously narrated the story of a western diplomat who lived in China and fell in love with a communist spy he thought was a woman. With deft comedy and captivating theatricality, Hwang illustrated the Orientalism endemic to the west, as white people persistently project their fantasies of the “Other” onto those unlike themselves. The production made a star of B.D. Wong, who played Song Liling and marked one of the stage highlights of Jon Lithgow’s long and distinguished career.
In his latest play, Chinglish, in a very funny, smart Broadway production directed by Leigh Silverman after a successful run at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre last summer, Hwang once again addresses mismatched cultures from the perspective of a white businessman, this time from Cleveland, who’s taken himself to China to stir up business for his family’s failing signage company. Daniel (Gary Wilmes) hires Peter (Stephen Pucci), an Englishman who’s lived in China for nearly 20 years, as a local “consultant” to help him translate not just the Chinese language, but also the complicated mores of the local culture, on which successful business deals depend. But as the Chinese officials with whom Daniel would do business bring along their own native translator, differences of meaning and failures of communication abound.
With most of the Chinese characters speaking Mandarin, the English translation is projected for the theatre audience as supertitles and most of the humor lodges in our syncopated reading of the translations as they’re posed against their intended meanings. The very problem Daniel offers to solve—the poorly translated signs in newly built cultural institutions meant to impress western audiences (a handicapped bathroom sign reads “Deformed Man Toilet”)—hobbles his business dealings, as the Chinese translator sitting in on his first meeting with local bureaucrats ineptly delivers his proposal.
Peter isn’t much better at greasing the wheels of business, caught up as he is in the “backstage” dealings that seed capitalist relationships in the communist state. The Englishman plans to succeed by relying on an exchange of favors that promptly backfires, stranding him and his American friend without a deal prospect.
But from behind the scenes comes Xi Yan (Jennifer Lim), the Chinese second-in-command who sits mostly silent and stern at the initial meeting, while her bumbling male boss performs the obsequious fawning that’s meant to flatter the American while not providing Daniel any true satisfaction. When Xi Yan offers to meet with Daniel over a meal, she dismisses Peter and proceeds to reveal the “backstage” story in halting English that brings its own set of hilarious misunderstandings.
But unlike her superior, Xi Yan is no fool. She’s a sharp businesswoman who understands the complex equation of Chinese business acumen with an ethical system of checks and balances that requires compromise to protect private honor. When she and Daniel begin an affair, her same unsentimental, sophisticated analysis of global power dynamics infuses her tryst. Silverman directs Lim to literally let down her hair in her bedroom scenes with Daniel, but instead of a typical transformation into a simpering sex kitten (the stereotype that underlies the stern business woman or worse, “librarian” figure), Xi Yan retains her agency. She’s after pleasure, not a relationship, and soundly rejects Daniel’s belief that sex leads to love and then to marriage.
The gender politics of the play are as interesting here as they were in M. Butterfly, though these many years later, Hwang allows an actual woman to deliver the critique of American Orientalism. Enjoying their passionate affair, Daniel begins to get carried away with romance, suggesting that he and Xi Yan leave their respective marriages to be together, as people in love are supposed to do, according to his American fantasies.
But Xi Yan is horrified by this idea, protesting that if he leaves his wife, he’ll threaten her own marriage, which is built not on some western notion of eternal sentimental love, but on a much more pragmatic understanding of partnership and mutual public benefit. In fact, Xi Yan’s business machinations with Daniel increase the political standing of her husband, Xu Geming (Johnny Wu), a judge who is subsequently promoted to mayor. That Xi Yan can keep squarely separate public politics from private pleasure makes her the more powerful of the couple. At the end, Daniel can only ruefully go on with his life and enjoy the successful business contract his relationship with Xi Yan enabled.
The play is full of wry and pointed observations about gender, as well as nationality and race. Played by Wilmes with hapless magnetism and bemused patience, Daniel is a sweet nebbish of a guy, desperate to succeed in an environment about which he knows virtually nothing. He’s middle-aged, handsome in a regular sort of way, and not particularly sexy, though the more elegant and sophisticated Xi Yan thinks him compatible. Lim performs Xi Yan with precise comic control, never sacrificing the character’s dignity to get a laugh, and infusing her sexuality with the perfect balance of desire and agency. Hers is a terrific performance of a role that could easily sink into cardboard stereotype.
Daniel finds his erotic and corporate quotient surprisingly elevated when he admits that he worked for Enron; he becomes a minor celebrity in a Chinese context in which crooks like Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling are seen as heroes. The Chinese make grand assumptions about Daniel’s proximity to the company’s power structure, which establishes more credibility than he has or probably deserves.
But with such a counter-misunderstanding, Hwang this time around evens the playing field. In M. Butterfly, the playwright’s excoriating critique showed up western men’s projections of otherness and eroticism onto Asian women, seeing them as wounded butterflies in need of white male protection. That Song Liling turned out to be quite a virile young man instead of a helpless woman only underlined Hwang’s critique of the west’s insistent feminization of eastern cultures.
In Chinglish, the cultural misapprehensions are mutual, allowing Hwang to portray an international scene in which both countries share responsibility for perpetuating their own miscommunications. At the same time, Hwang clarifies that the fledgling capitalism in China needs western-style business and vice versa, that their transactions are a matter of mutual survival.
The cast is uniformly terrific. Many play multiple roles, from Party apparatchiks to local officials. Silverman keeps the tone even and light throughout, allowing the play’s humor to sound without sacrificing Hwang’s more serious underlying intent. The evening moves smoothly—the set (beautifully designed by David Korins) folds into and out of itself into various locations, from the lobby of a swanky hotel to one of its rooms, to the bureaucrats’ office and back again, using the actors to help punctuate and enliven the frequent transitions.
Chinglish ultimately isn’t as transformational a play as M. Butterfly¸ whose intense theatricality alone made it memorable. Chinglish remains realist throughout, and banks on the humor of its mistranslations to strike home its points. But the evening succeeds in making amused spectators think about national and cultural differences and how we traverse them, along with the social complications of navigating global capitalism in an increasingly interconnected world.
The Feminist Spectator
Chinglish, by David Henry Hwang, directed by Leigh Silverman, Longacre Theatre, October 29, 2011.