Friday, December 14, 2012

East sleeps with West at the Lyric

Barlow Adamson and Celeste Oliva in Chinglish.  Photos: Mark S. Howard.

It's amusing (to me, at any rate) that so many critics have misinterpreted David Henry Hwang's Ch'inglish, which is itself a play about misinterpretation - on the surface, that is. But ah, there's the rub; at its core, Hwang's text is about something else entirely: like his best-known script, M. Butterfly, it's about the chasm between public and private identity, and how negotiation of that gap is always fraught, particularly for the lonely self forced to wear two faces.

Of course, as with Butterfly (and much of Hwang's work), that conflict comes in a clever, politically-correct wrapper: once more this playwright pirouettes around the long cultural negotiation between "East" and "West" (or specifically, China and the U.S.).  As Hwang was born in L.A. of Chinese parents, you can understand his addiction to this particular gambit - and it always gets him past the multicultural police, of course; but it does mean his work has been persistently misinterpreted.

With Ch'inglish, that misunderstanding runs right from the top of the critical pyramid (Ben Brantley, in the New York Times) to the many local responses to the current, solid production at the Lyric Stage (through Dec. 23).  The trouble is that, you know, as Charlie Chan might say, Ben Brantley - he no review so good.  Brantley seems to have been both dazzled and disgruntled by the layer of translation jokes that Hwang (who always has one eye on the box office) has sprinkled copiously over his show.  And the gaffes that bedevil the lead character, an American businessman on the make in the provincial capital of Guiyang, are distractingly funny (in the fast-and furious supertitles, for instance, we discover that "I love you" in Mandarin is easily garbled into "Frogs like to pee!").

But Hwang never really looks very far into the conceptual canyons between Mandarin and English (which I know a bit about these days, as I'm often editing scientific research by Asians).  As a playwright, he's just not all that interested in the "lost-in-translation" box-office bait he has strung over his text (perhaps because he doesn't even speak Mandarin himself).

Unexpected fans of Enron.
What he is intrigued by is the parallel mis-understandings (of both "self" and "other") by his leads, Daniel Cavanaugh (Barlow Adamson), an Ohio signage entrepreneur ( a kind of semiotician, no less!), and Xi Yan (Celeste Oliva), a government official with whom he tangles  - in more ways than one - in Guiyang.

Both parties, of course, entertain received ideas about the other - Cavanaugh, for instance, has drunk and digested all the Wall Street Journal Kool-aid about China: to him it's a land where the law means nothing, and relationships mean everything.  Needless to say, however, Hwang drolly reveals that the same could be said about America - indeed, Daniel's past includes a stint at Enron, the vast McKinsey-driven boondoggle that stayed afloat twice as long as it should have because of its network of Republican connections.  (Tellingly, it's only when the Chinese learn this fact about Daniel, and then see him as a "high-roller" in a celebrity scandal with which they can relate, that they want to do business with him.)

Meanwhile, on the Chinese side of the mirror, Xi Yang has begun to pine for Daniel because, poignantly, he has 'an honest face,' apparently unlike those around her (if only he did!).  So their tryst has its tragic side - particularly when we learn that it is doomed for an intriguingly Chinese reason: an untranslatable concept - perhaps roughly corresponding to "sacrifice-commitment" - which Xi Yang feels for the public role of the husband she is privately betraying.

You can sense in that strange twist of double-identity the very essence of Hwang's constant theme - although to be fair, he renders it somewhat schematically here; he's often in a hurry to get to his next joke, and he's prone to odd stylistic jumps and bumps (not always smoothly negotiated by Lyric director Larry Coen) that sometimes blur the focus of his play.

Still, there's more to Ch'inglish than to most New York hits, and it's generally well-served by the Lyric production, which showcases several local actors - mostly Asian - who have had little chance to flourish on the Boston theatre scene (where the diversity discussions don't always include too much diversity).  Director Coen goes more for laughs than character (as he usually does), but fortunately he has cast the extraordinary Celeste Oliva, who has long been hidden away in Shear Madness, as Xi Yan; and she all but single-handedly deepens what could otherwise play as farce into something much more haunting.  And amazingly, although she admitted in a talkback that she is not Chinese, like most of the cast she carries off large swaths of dialogue in (to these ears) credible Mandarin. Alas, as her American paramour, the amiable Barlow Adamson, who has been so reliable elsewhere, isn't nearly in her league; he seems to have no idea how to complicate the superficial American boyishness of his hero.  But frankly, Ms. Oliva acts enough for both of them.

Elsewhere, the performances tend to be broad but clever: Tiffany Chen scores as a blithely blunt translator, while Michael Tow and Chen Tang make strong impressions as members of the Party who don't always toe the party line.   And there's another find on the edge of the production - Alexander Platt does a deft (if not quite complex enough) turn as a British "consultant" who like everyone else is hardly what he seems to be. With his lightly diabolical air, and a smoother than smooth way with Oxbridge chatter, Mr. Platt is a natural for Shaw or any number of other playwrights.  Let's hope we hear from him, the talented Ms. Oliva, and all their co-stars sometime soon - in any language.

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