That might qualify as a “Chinglish” mistranslation of the phrase “oft-repeated Chinese jokes are only funny the first time”. The 2011 play by David Henry Hwang (“M Butterfy”, “Golden Child”), now presented by Lyric Stage Company, is full of such malapropisms, arguably too full of them. The incongruent phrases are projected via surtitles, a device that’s clever if not particularly original; the same gimmick was used quite a few years ago in another play about Pidgin Chinese being mangled by a group of well-meaning missionaries (the name of which is lost to memory). This play concerns more mercenary ends, namely how an American businessman Daniel Cavanaugh (Barlow Adamson) aims to get in on the growth potential of a Chinese province, hiring a cultural consultant and a translator to transmit his message. Sometimes hilarious phrases lost in the translation provide truly comic moments as the unworldly businessman attempts to make the sale. The first act consists mostly of these misfires, with pretty much all of the humor confined to the surtitles; the script may well read funnier than it plays.
The second act has fewer comedic lines but a little more dramatic interest in some of the players. The role of Xi Yan (extremely well performed by Celeste Oliva), the only well developed character in the play, turns out be more complex than first thought. It seems that there is more agenda at work here and that she, as several others, is not quite what she appeared to be. Ironically, too, it’s only when the occidental salesman is found to have been deeply involved in the Enron scandal that the potential oriental customers express enthusiasm for his project, which involves producing various forms of commercial signage (not a very subtle point). In that scene, Hwang comes perilously close to more than mere political incorrectness, as the Chinese characters become caricatures. Even more egregious is the portrayal of a minor Chinese sycophant as an offensive homosexual stereotype (a misstep Hwang was also guilty of in his re-writing of the book for a 2002 revival of “Flower Drum Song”). In any case, as directed by Larry Coen, the rest of the cast performs admirably in roles that, given the audience’s need to read above their heads first, require a special kind of timing. Included in the cast are Alexander Platt, Tiffany Chen, Michael Tow, Chen Tang and Liz Eng (some doubling roles). The Scenic Design by Dahlia Al-Habieli, Costume Design by Emily Woods Hogue, Lighting Design by Matthew Whiton and Sound Design by Arshan Gailus are all first-rate, managing quite well without duplicating the rotating stage device of the Broadway version.
Time Magazine called that version one of 2011’s ten best Broadway plays, and the reviews, while not unanimous, were generally pretty favorable. One’s enjoyment of the work might well depend on your tolerance for the repetitious and the constant need to keep your extra set of eyes on the surtitles, as it is there that, as previously noted, most of the comedy takes place, and there’s not much real drama happening on stage. Having digested this version of the play, this critic had a subsequent craving, a few hours later, for more theater.