New York City Theater
Maybe adultery puts the kibosh on communication. After all, what do you need to talk about while you’re having an affair? In David Henry Hwang’s amusing “Ch´ing•lish,” American businessman Daniel Cavanaugh gets tangled in words when getting personal.
Hwang’s play is one funny joke told again and again, although its underlying message is the difficulty of communication. We’re in Guiyang, China, where Cavanaugh (a properly uptight Gary Wilmes) is trying to jump-start his business by replacing awkward English translations of Chinese signs. For example, he tells his hosts, the best translation for “slippery slope” is not “the slippery are very crafty.”
During a romantic session, his “I love you” is translated as “my fifth aunt” on its way to becoming “frog loves to pee.” (Projected titles ease us back and forth between Mandarin and English.)
Cavanaugh is us, an American, a capitalist, a naïve schmo when it comes to trying to outfox his more sophisticated, more devious hosts. He’s especially flummoxed by Xi Yan (a superb Jennifer Lim), the beautiful cultural minister with her own motives. Her taking advantage of his lack of fluency and his trust devolves into a search for truth and understanding. “I’m lost here and you tell me I’m good,” he says with touching wistfulness.
But then, it’s the decline of the West, isn’t it? As Hwang showed in his marvelous “M. Butterfly,” the West will forever be at a disadvantage. For us, a spade is a spade while, for the rest of the world, it could just as easily be a deck of cards.
On stage, everything whirls, from David Korins’ ever-changing sets to Leigh Silverman’s snappy direction. Yet the evening, once the premise is established, is repetitive, although it does come fitfully to life when we connect to Cavanaugh and Xi Yan’s pasts are made aware of the slippery slopes upon which we try to keep our balance.
--David A. Rosenberg
Dec. 1, 2011