Front Row Reviews

“Chinglish” Mingles Language & Politics In Brilliant Comedy

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In his crafty comedy “Chinglish,” David Henry Hwang forces us to face the consequences of rampant cultural misinterpretations. His characters play a game of deception that feels like a British spy comedy set in China.

Hwang jumps into the gap between Chinese and U.S. culture, while Jeffrey Lo directs a brilliant all-star cast.

In front of elegant dark wood and white silk Shoji screens, by designer Andrea Bechert, we are swept into the life of bewildered Ohio sign manufacturer and salesman Daniel Cavanaugh (assured Michael Barrett Austin). Finding himself lost in meetings at the Chinese Ministry, Daniel fumbles awkwardly, misunderstanding his hosts’ intentions.

British expatriate teacher-turned-interpreter Peter Timms (persistent Matthew Bohrer) assures David that they can make a good deal with the Chinese. But he warns David about a Chinese Golden rule called guanxi, which translates to “Legal means nothing, relationships only.”

In the high-flying international negotiations of “Chinglish,” as in many businesses throughout the world, business means relationships that can add up to deceptions. The guanxi connections form a web of personal and political I.O.U.’s.

David’s lack of understanding unravels into a surprising and fun-filled absurd ending when the true natures of Chinese and U.S. cultural customs collide. When the mid-western businessman meets Chinese Cultural Minister, Cai Guoliang (hilarious Alex Hsu) and Judge Xu Geming (witty Phil Wong), all three get tangled in the intriguing guanxi web.

Their business meetings prove to be the most fun. Big screens at the sides of the stage display startling, bad translations of English and Mandarin. The error-filled signs propel us into wild laughter. Kudos to Sharon Shao who plays the shy, sensitive, interpreter Miss Quan, the most believable of the group. She misinterprets “Slippery Slopes Ahead” as “Take notice of safe; the slippery are very crafty.”

Director Jeffrey Lo and Language Consultant Patrick Chew sustain the misunderstandings of Chinese business culture. “Handicapped Toilet” becomes “Deformed Man’s toilet.” The jokes explode as actors speak the difficult Mandarin, hilariously mistranslated!

Enter clever Xi Yan, the Vice Minister of Culture, masterfully played by versatile Nicole Tung. Sexy Xi enchants Daniel and helps him sell his proposal to the Ministry. As she shares with him, “He has an honest, good face, and still has his innocence.” We sense the translation: He’s naïve.

One of the funniest scenes in the play unfolds when Xi attempts to teach Daniel basic Chinese, as Tung builds a dynamic energy between them. Yet Xi and Daniel’s romance, like so many relationships, remain cloaked in misinterpretations caused by faulty perceptions and verbal mistakes.

We don’t know what her game is until the end.

Hwang and Lo’s “Chinglish,” with its talented cast and witty script, guarantees an audience-pleasing comedy, packed with wit and laughter—and a few lessons for all of us.

“Chinglish” by David Henry Hwang, directed by Jeffrey Lo, at San Francisco Playhouse. Info: – to June 10, 2023.

Cast: Michael Barrett Austin, Mathew Bohrer, Alex Hsu, Xun Shang, Sharon Shao, and Phil Wong.

Photo: Jessica Palopoli