“Chinglish” translates well on the Broadway stage by Kevin M. Thomas

When you hear the word “chinglish” you might think it’s like spanglish – combining Spanish and English into a pretty coherent sentence.  Chinglish is actually what happens when English is poorly translated from Chinese words, which is demonstrated oh so well by the current Broadway play with the same name.

According to playwright David Henry Hwang, when he was once in China and saw a sign that read “Deformed Man’s Toilet” (instead of “Handicapped Restroom”), he felt this funny situation would make a great premise to a show.

While it’s a show about a man who sells accurately translated signage, it was not easy to find a great bilingual cast, but director Leigh Silverman says it was a bigger challenge to make the timing of the humor translate as well. She says the languages are so different, the Chinese actors tended to want to put emphasis on the wrong part of a line, effecting the timing and, therefore, the humor.

Photo: Michael McCable

Photo: Michael McCable

Casting and directing challenges aside, “Chinglish” is a swift, intelligent comedy that mixes its politics, humor and sexual interludes much better than the interpretations of the two languages. From page to stage, nothing is lost in translation as “Chinglish” is a winner from beginning to end.

Photo: Michael McCabe

Photo: Michael McCabe

Hwang’s story, although simplistic in many ways, brings the best of both Chinese and Western cultures and truly transports it’s audience. He is so well partnered with director Silverman who proves to be a yin to his yang and keeps the story moving at an excellent pace. Silverman’s placement of subtitles is inspired and her vision of the show is strengthened by the Tony caliber scenic design of David Korins.

Korins’ work here is so exceptional that his praise comes even before that of the actors on stage. The modest Longacre Theatre stage is transformed with easy and quick pace from a Chinese restaurant to office space. And the seamless way the set goes from hotel lobby to guest room is nothing short of amazing.

Fortunately, a set can only hold our attention for so long and the cast does achieve the perfect timing that Silverman strived for and brings out bravura  performances, particularly from Jennifer Lim. The cast for the most part are excellent, but when Lim is on stage, she commands your attention and only takes a moment to make us realize this isn’t a play about signage. Tough, tender, smart, funny – Lim embraces all emotions and runs with it.

Director, Leigh Silverman; Writer David Henry Hwang

Director, Leigh Silverman; Writer David Henry Hwang

Kudos also belong to Stephen Pucci who plays a business associate to Gary Wilmes’ lead character who also happens to be an interpreter. Seemingly, as I don’t know Chinese, Pucci’s flawless translations and stage presence makes quite an impressive Broadway debut.

Normally, on Broadway, I catch all of the musicals. But as a fan of Hwang’s gay-themed  “M. Butterfly” I though I’d give a play a chance. And I was not disappointed.

“Chinglish” is on Broadway at the Longacre Theater, 220 West 48th Street, Manhattan; (212) 239-6200; telecharge.com.

You might enjoy some misinterpretations on the show’s website, www.chinglishbroadway.com.