More and more, it is impossible to find a product that reads “Made in the U.S.A.” Ch¢ing×lish, the new comedy from David Henry Hwang (Tony Award winner for M. Butterfly), explores the ideas of overseas business. While at first, this concept might now seem to be the most interesting of material, Hwang successfully blends comedy, passion, English, and Chinese to form Ch¢ing×lish, currently playing at the Longacre Theatre. This piece, however, must come with a disclaimer – due to the fact that there is a great deal of the piece spoken in Chinese with the English translation projected on the walls of the set. So, if you are ready to do some reading, Ch¢ing×lish is a unique theatre experience that really takes risks that pay off.
Daniel Cavanaugh is an American business man trying to establish business in China. With the city of Guiyang preparing to open a brand new state of the art theatre, Daniel plans to enter this city and pitch perfectly translated signs for the theatre. After enlisting the help of an English man who speaks fluent Chinese, Peter Timms, Daniel enters his first big business meeting in China. The head of the operation Minister Cai Guoliang and Xi Yan seem to positively react to Daniel’s proposal; however, as the scenes progress, it becomes clear that not everything is as straight forward as it seems. Relationships are twisted, personalities are stretched, and families are pushed to the brink. In the end, everyone is forced to understand Ch¢ing×lish, a combination of language, culture, and business.
With a very relaxed and laid-back persona, Daniel is portrayed by Gary Wilmes (Adam Rapp’s Red Light Winter). Wilmes starts the piece with a very strong voice and personality – taking a clam command of each situation, from business to love. This personality, however, never reaches new levels; as dramatic and life changing events happen in Daniel’s life, he never shares any emotion above clam – leaving the whole performance feeling a bit flat. This flatness was brought further into light when acting side by side with the beautiful and talented Jennifer Lim (film’s 27 Dresses and television’s The Good Wife) as the determined business woman in a man’s world, Xi Yan. Lim takes control of the stage in each and every scene, commanding attention and focus. Lim takes Yan to new dimensions that leave the audience longing for her success and happiness – especially when the reason behind her twisted games is revealed. Lim combines Chinese and English to truly representing the meaning behind the title, Ch¢ing×lish. Minister Cai Guoliang, the head of the company developing the theatre and Xi Yan’s boss, comes to life by Larry Lei Zhang (a graduate of the Shanghai Theatre Academy). Zhang delivers an entire performance in Chinese; however, with great expressions and larger than life movements, Zhang could do the entire performance without the provided subtitles. His mannerisms were clear and direct making his performance highly entertaining and exciting to watch. Unfortunately, Stephen Pucci (Royal Opera House’s Absent), playing interpreter Peter, falls victim to the flat lining syndrome that effected Wilmes. His approach to the character is full of life and importance; however, it never develops from there. Pucci and Wilmes never take their characters on a journey throughout the piece, leaving the end result no different from point one. Props have to given to the rest of the Ch¢ing×lish ensemble – constantly coming in and out of scenes as different characters each with a strong intent and direction is not easy; however these three actors do a truly brilliant job.
Ch¢ing×lish features direction from Leigh Silverman (Well) that is well focused and nicely done. While some scenes fall a bit flat with actors simply sitting in chairs and not moving for a few minutes at a time, these mistakes can be forgiven for when the strong movements come into play. Moving actors around a crazy good scenic design, creates the illusion that there is life outside of the four walls that the main characters live in. David Korins (the current Godspell and An Evening with LuPone and Patinkin) takes the piece to a new level with his extremely intricate and rotating scenic design. Moving from one location to another, Hwang’s script calls for many scene changes and different locations, each spinning on and off with ease and moving ensemble members to create scenes during the scene changes. With walls and accessories appeared to be pulled right from the pages of a Chinese magazine, Korins delivers some stunning work. Jeff Sugg (33 Variations) and Shawn Duan (Yo Gabba Live!) team up to create the extremely important projection design for the piece. With each line of Chinese needed to be translated for the audience, Sugg and Duan produce projections that flow with ease and are easy to read and follow. The piece is over all directed and designed nicely with great intent and strong story telling.
Ch¢ing×lish takes a strong risk in entering the world of Broadway. Will theatre goers be able to connect to a story where over half is spoken in a different language? The answer is yes they most certainly can! With a powerful script, strong characters, and nice design, Ch¢ing×lish unleashes a new fusion of language to the American public. Bring your glasses, get ready to read, and share a laugh because this is definitely a piece for theatre fans to check out.