At the center of Chinglish (written by David Henry Hwang and directed by Leigh Silverman), currently running at the Goodman Theatre is Midwestern businessman Daniel Cavanaugh (James Waterston), who sets off to China, hoping to save his family’s business, a sign making company, Ohio Signage, by landing a lucrative contract producing the English signs for the new cultural center in Guiyang.
Once there he finds himself in need of some serious help. He is unfamiliar with China, its culture, its customs, and the way that they do business. Given the situation that he finds himself in, he hires Peter Timms (Stephen Pucci), an Australian teacher-turned-business consultant who has lived in China for 20 years and is fluent in Mandarin.
At their first meeting, Daniel quickly learns that doing business in China is nothing like what he (clearly) anticipated. For one, he thought that staying in Guiyang for one week would be enough time to close the deal and get a signed contract for his family’s firm to produce the signs. It turns out, however, that’s not nearly enough. In China, a country where who you know can often be just as important (if not more important) than what you know, closing this kind of lucrative deal – if you even can – requires much more time. Upon learning this, Daniel commits to hiring Peter and extends his stay from one week to eight– the very longest he says he can stay -- to get this business deal done.
Shortly thereafter, Daniel gets his chance to meet with Minister Cai Guoliang (Larry Zhang), the official who will decide to whom the contract is awarded, to make his pitch. With the assistance of Peter (who translates the speech that he gives to Minister Cai), Daniel makes a case as to why they should choose Ohio Signage to do the English translation of the signs in the cultural center rather than another – perhaps Chinese – company. A similar cultural center in another city didn’t hire an American company. Though the center was indeed impressive, built of the finest materials available, with virtually no expense spared, the English signs that were produced were extremely embarrassing, with news of these rather glaring mistakes spreading far and wide. While Peter is more than capable of accurately translating what Daniel says, the same cannot be said of Minister Cai’s translators (who are far less proficient in English than Peter is in Mandarin) when it comes to translating what Minister Cai and his people say. Ironic, in a way, since what they are meeting to discuss is why an American company should produce the signs – which is to avoid the bad translations that may occur if a Chinese company were selected to do the job instead. As a result, much of what is said is translated incorrectly – or, more accurately, much of the nuance is lost. Not entirely unexpected, particularly with a language like Mandarin, where the slightest change in pronunciation can change the word’s meaning entirely.
Complicating matters further is the fact that, when it comes to some words or phrases, unlike what many might assume, there is no equivalent. For example, when Chicago comes up in conversation during the meeting with Minister Cai, Daniel brings up a particular restaurant in the city, which he says is like a second home to him. To us this obviously would simply mean that he frequents the restaurant. Minister Cai’s translators take it to mean that he sometimes lives in the restaurant.
Furthermore, while back in the U.S., it is commonplace for people to, in a sense, boast about what they’ve accomplished, in China, where they tend to downplay what they’ve done or their abilities, that is not the case. While, what back in the U.S. would be viewed as Daniel’s failures, that which he is running and hiding from, is what seals the deal, is what seems attractive to them.
Shortly after the meeting, he has another, this time with Xu Yan (Jennifer Lim) the Vice Minister, at a restaurant, where he is told that there are people who are not being completely honest with him, that some people are not who they say they are, and that includes his business consultant, Peter. Xu Yan agrees to help him out herself, but only in secret.
It is through these secret meetings (unknown to Minister Cai or to Peter) between Xu Yan and Daniel that a romantic relationship develops between the two of them, and cultural differences really begin to be clear. Even when it comes to something like marriage, Daniel and Xu Yan have different views. Though they both feel as though they are trapped in their marriages. Daniel thinks spouses should have an open, honest relationship in which they speak with one another, and tell each other everything. Xu Yan feels otherwise. She says that it is “better this way,” better that she doesn’t speak with her husband, her husband doesn’t speak with her, and that they don’t tell each other everything. She views marriage as something that is a long-term commitment. Even if there is no great big love between herself and her husband, it is something that you stick with. Divorce to Xu Yan, for all intents and purposes, is not an option. Daniel, who has fallen for her, however, sees things differently. He feels that if you are no longer in love, you can divorce your spouse so that you may be with the one you really have a connection with, that you really love.
Chinglish is a witty, fascinating take on another culture, a foreigner doing business in China, and last but most definitely not least, the extremely important role that language plays in our lives. Chinglish is at the Goodman Theatre through July 24, 2011. Curtain times for Chinglish are: Saturdays at 2:00 PM and 8:00 PM (no 2 PM performance on June 18, June 25, and July 2), Sundays at 2:00 PM and 7:30 PM (no 2 PM performance on July 3 and 17), no performances Mondays (except at 7:00 PM on Opening Night, June 27), Tuesdays at 7:30 PM (no performances on June 21, June 28, or July 5), Wednesdays at 7:30 PM, Thursdays at 2:00 PM and 7:30 PM (no 2 PM performance on June 23 and July 21), Fridays at 2:00 PM and 8:00 PM (no 2 PM on June 18, June 25, and July 2).
To purchase tickets, or for more information about this production, special events associated with this production, the upcoming season, or about the theatre in general, visit the Goodman Theatre website, www.goodmantheatre.org. Tickets may also be purchased by calling the Box Office at 312-443-3800. Goodman Theatre is located at 170 N. Dearborn St. in Chicago.
Production Photos: Eric Y. Exit