Review: Chinglish Has Good Intentions, but the Results Fall Flat

Christa Yan and Mark Rubald in Chinglish.
Christa Yan and Mark Rubald in Chinglish. Christine Fisk
Chinglish, a play about an American businessman struggling to win a commission in China, has good intentions. When Tony-winning playwright David Henry Hwang wrote Chinglish in 2011, he noted that "the U.S. and China are at a critical moment in history — each nation is deeply interested in, but knows very little about, the other.” And now, in the time of Trump, that odd, queasy game between China and the U.S .— the struggle for regional dominance, the economic interconnectedness — is being played for even higher stakes. So a show that explores the boundaries, interactions and misunderstandings between the two cultures and countries is profoundly welcome.

The Aurora Fox's production of Chinglish has good intentions, too. The process of putting this regional premiere together was a cultural exploration in itself: In his search for Mandarin-speaking actors, director Steve Wilson found some treasures, including native speakers and others with only a nodding acquaintance with the language. As a businessman who worked for several years in China, dramaturge Philip Beck shares some history with the play’s protagonist. Unfortunately, Hwang's script is flat, and this production only rarely sparks to life.

As I watched, I kept remembering the movie and television sitcom Outsourced, about an American attempting to run a call center for American novelties in Mumbai. The show didn’t aim for significance, but it, too, explored the plight of a Westerner in an alien culture, complete with mutual stereotyping and confusion; it also had a liveliness, variety and generosity of spirit that Chinglish lacks.

In Hwang’s play, Daniel, played by Mark Rubald, is in the provincial city of Guiyang, angling for the job of providing accurate signage for a spanking-new arts center intended to lure tourists. He’s helped by expat and translator Peter (Tim O’Connell), a man essentially without a country. He meets with the minister of culture (Ke Zang) and his vice-minister, a very attractive young woman (Christa Yan), and is later surprised when she visits his hotel. A different kind of negotiation ensues.

Some of the play’s best moments occur when Daniel demonstrates to his hosts the hilarious inaccuracies of existing signs — a urinal for the disabled identified as “Deformed man’s toilet,” for example. And the business talks are often very funny, too, as translators — by mistake or as a deliberate tactic — distort Daniel’s arguments. Eventually, however, we find out that the misunderstandings go far deeper than this:There are things about China that Daniel will never fathom. And if he himself is more corrupt than we understood at first, his Chinese counterparts swim smoothly and habitually in an oily sea of lies, power-mongering and corruption.

The story unfolds, scene by scene and without subtext or diversion, like the panels in a cartoon strip. A fair amount of the dialogue is spoken in Mandarin, but the subtitles make it easy to follow. None of the characters is given much depth, though Peter has a couple of breakthrough moments of anger or anguish, and O'Connell plays them fully. Rubald and Yan both give skilled naturalistic performances, but they’re a little low-key, and I’d like to have seen more of a contrast between Xi-Yan in the bedroom and Xi-Yan in her formal role of vice minister. Among the other actors, Peter Trinh is very funny in a handful of roles, and Ke Zang’s weary, cynical wisdom and subdued humor as the minister often make him the most interesting person on stage.

Chinglish, presented by the Aurora Fox through April 9, 9900 East Colfax Avenue, Aurora, 303-739-1970,
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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman