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THEATER REVIEW: South Coast Rep’s “Chinglish”

I have seen many a mistranslation since that time, years ago, when a Lisbon restaurant offered “filet of wild board.”

David Henry Hwang uses that common travelers’ experience to great and hilarious effect in his new play “Chinglish,” about a clueless American who wants to get in on the Chinese business boom by offering to make sure their signs are translated a bit better than the above example.

“Chinglish,” directed by Leigh Silverman, plays through Feb. 24 at South Coast Repertory.

Daniel Cavanaugh (Alex Moggridge) lands in Guiyang, where we find him lunching with Peter Timms (Brian Nishii), a British teacher who has been there for years and is offering his services as a translator. Peter offers to set up a meeting with Culture Minister Cai (Raymond Ma).

That meeting with Cai, his inept translator Miss Qian (Celeste Den) and coolly efficient assistant minister Xi Yan (Michelle Krusiec), is a wonder of hilarious miscommunication, with translations presented in supertitles above.

Much of the show depends on this; another scene with Xi and Daniel is comically exasperating for both, her English (learned in a six-month stint in Sri Lanka) and his nonexistent Mandarin resulting in more miscommunication.

But it isn’t just language that keeps Americans and Chinese from communicating. The cultural differences, especially in the business world, can be mystifying. Daniel will also learn about “backdoor” negotiations and the Chinese custom of self-criticism (making sure there is someone is the room to contradict you). And Xi Yan will provide insights into interpersonal relations in China as well.

When Daniel is rebuffed by Cai, Peter sets up a meeting with officials from another city, they ask about the fact that his company is broke. Daniel decides to disclose a dark secret in his past that would end negotiations in this country, but that actually gives him status in China.

“Chinglish” offers many delights, not the least of which is David Korins’ spectacular double-revolving set which almost seems to fold up on itself like Asian paper-folding art. It even features a revolving door.

The cast is excellent, nearly all actors the same as performed this earlier at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Moggridge is charming as the clueless American businessman. Nishii has a somewhat spotty British accent detracts only slightly from his fine portrayal as Peter.

Krusiec presents the perfect ice queen as Xi Yan, efficient, lovely and dangerous.

Austin Ku, Celeste Den and Vivian Chiu are all fine as various Chinese characters.

The play could use some trimming. Mistranslations are fun – up to a point – but after a while the humor wears a bit thin. Hwang mentions the meatier problems but doesn’t really go anywhere with them, nor make much of Cai’s rather sudden change of fortune at the end.

Still, “Chinglish” is an amusing, often hilarious evening in the theater, especially for single-language travelers who have had their own communication gaps.

The details

“Chinglish” plays through Feb. 24 at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 pm; Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm; matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2:30 pm.

Tickets: (714) 708-5555 or HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.