Talking the talk, or not, in Berkeley Rep’s Chinglish

Aug 30

EXTENDED THROUGH OCT. 21!
Chinglish 1
Alex Moggridge is an American businessman trying to work in China with expected and unexpected results in David Henry Hwang’s Chinglish at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Below: Moggridge’s Daniel attempts to communicate with Michelle Krusiec’s Xi Yan during a private business meeting. Photos by kevinberne.com.

Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s season-opening production of Chinglish by David Henry Hwang presents the best possible circumstances to witness communication happening under the worst possible circumstances.

This is what you’d call a serious comedy, which is to say there are big laughs generated by a serious subject. That subject is, essentially, how hard it is for people to listen to and understand one another, and Hwang takes us into an extreme situation to demonstrate the many layers of communication.

American Daniel Cavanaugh (Alex Moggridge) is a Midwestern businessman trying to salvage his family’s sign-making business by making deals in China. He’s in Guiyang, a medium-size city hoping to make the Chinese/English signs for the new cultural arts center. His pitch is that local officials will want the translations to be accurate and not the kind of signage that causes laughter and fills websites such as www.engrish.com. There’s a lot Daniel isn’t saying about why he’s really in China, but it all comes out eventually.

He’s learning the ropes of doing business in China with the help of consultant/translator Peter (Brian Nishii), who claims to love China more than his native England and speaks Chinese better than some residents. The two make a dynamic team, but the intricacies of Chinese diplomacy, formality and subterfuge is something of a minefield.

Some of the two-hour play’s funniest moments happen during business meetings with the Minister of Culture (Larry Lei Zhang) when the Chinese officials are using their own translators, most of whom are just awful. We know this because all of the Chinese is subtitled and projected on the walls of the set. We can see just how mangled the language is, and that’s comedy (also thanks to the astute actors playing the terrible translators, Celeste Den, Vivian Chiu and Austin Ku).

Chinglish 2

But even when the translators aren’t around and Daniel attempts to forge a relationship with the vice-minister of culture, Xi Yan (the gorgeous and astonishingly good Michelle Krusiec), the process of being understood is still laborious and underscored with the knowing laughter of frustration.

In this well-made play, Hwang keeps upping the stakes as we learn more about what’s really motivating the characters, and the romance he throws into the plot allows the second act to plumb some emotional depths and extend his observations on communication to include the complexities of spousal relations and how marriage is seen differently from Eastern and Western perspectives.

In director Leigh Silverman’s sturdy production, the laughs flow constantly, and the performances seem effortless, even as they straddle two very different worlds and languages. Set designer David Korins, re-creating the look of last fall’s Broadway production, deserves abundant credit for keeping things moving – literally. His set rotates and slides and moves with amazing efficiency as action shifts from an office to a restaurant to a hotel lobby to a hotel room. The set changes are thrilling to watch, especially when they’re injected with flashes of humor or action (just watch as characters navigate the giant moving pieces of the set, shifting from one location to another as if walking through real-world spaces).

The set’s machinations might be too much if the actors weren’t so fantastic. They refuse to let sliding pieces of furniture or realistic elevators steal focus from the business at hand. Moggridge is the ideal leading man here, naive (to a point) and honorable (to a point). He’s desperate and smart but also likeable and fallible. The captivating Krusiec is a great foil for him. Outfitted in Anita Yavich’s killer short skirts and heels business ensembles, she’s dressed to kill. Her brusque business manner leaves little room for humor, and yet she’s quite funny, especially as her armor falls (to a point).

The ending of Chinglish, part of a bookend presentation by Daniel to an audience isn’t nearly as sturdy as the play that has come before it. The play, full of punches and tickles and provocations, ends with a shrug, and that’s not nearly enough. Still, the crackling comic energy of the evening refuses to be diminished. Let there be no miscommunication here: Chinglish speaks the language of laughs, and that translates into a disarmingly delightful evening of theater.

[bonus interview]
I chatted with Chinglish playwright David Henry Hwang for the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
David Henry Hwang’s Chinglish continues an extended run through Oct. 21 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $14.50-$99 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.

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