| Theater |

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
Keep Westword Free
I Support
  • Local
  • Community
  • Journalism
  • logo

Support the independent voice of Denver and help keep the future of Westword free.

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, aurorafox.org.

Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.

We use cookies to collect and analyze information on site performance and usage, and to enhance and customize content and advertisements. By clicking 'X' or continuing to use the site, you agree to allow cookies to be placed. To find out more, visit our cookies policy and our privacy policy.


Join the Westword community and help support independent local journalism in Denver.


Join the Westword community and help support independent local journalism in Denver.