Review by Craig Idlebrook
(Boston) There is something that can be excruciatingly transcendent about trying to communicate in a foreign language. For one thing, you must forgo words like “excruciatingly” and “transcendent” for utilitarian expressions and gesticulations to get the job done. You must expose yourself to ridicule and connect in a raw and childlike way in the hope that others will understand you. If you stick with the process, it’s easy to believe your artifice is stripped away in the process to reveal the real you.
David Henry Hwang’s comedy script Ching-lish works best when it’s exploring this gulf in communication between cultures and between a man and a woman, but Larry Coen’s staging of the play at the Lyric Stage fails to build on the script’s promise to create a cohesive vision. Instead, we are left with a heartfelt rom-com crammed between sketch scenes about bad translation and artistic explorations of the Chinese psyche. The mishmash makes for a pleasant, but forgettable evening of theater.
The play tracks Daniel Cavanaugh (Barlow Adamson), a desperate American businessman who pins his family’s fortunes and his own hope for a new life on getting business for his sign company in the provincial Chinese city of Guiyang. Along the way, he is thrown into a crash course about Chinese culture by a series of guides, first by an ex-pat consultant, Peter Timms (Alexander Platt), and then by a beautiful government official, Xi Yan (Celeste Olivia). Xi and Daniel fall in love despite the static crackling in their communication lines, as each discovers something in the other that helps them find and hide from themselves. But nothing is as simple as Daniel wishes it to be, especially in China, a country where everyone is struggling to find their place in a society with too many unwritten rules.
This production is filled with laugh-out-loud moments and real tension, but it lacks a cohesive big picture and a consistent pulse. The action on-stage unsuccessfully moves from frenetic comedic energy to soft moments of reflection, which can leave a theatergoer with whiplash.
Nowhere is this unevenness more apparent than with the principal romantic leads. The sweetest moments on stage are when the language-crossed lovers meet in the linguistic middle with their own mix of English and Chinese, destroying syntax in an attempt to bridge the gulf between a man and a woman. They pursue each other’s thoughts with the abandonment of children chasing after butterflies. But when not tackling the barriers of love, Adamson looks out-of-place on stage as Daniel, punctuating the character’s utter American-ness in each line until he appears to be the token Hollywood actor in a foreign film, utterly unable to assimilate into the style of the production. Olivia does a better job with her non-romantic stage time, but she’s given chew-the-scenery monologues by the script, which makes her task easier. Still, she owns the stage with her monologues about her Xi Yan’s quiet and heartbreaking sense of bewilderment about how life turns.
The supporting cast also succeeds and flounders at times to find the play’s pulse. Platt struggles to flesh out his character to be more than an Englishman in Guiyang, but Chen Tang flourishes to create his own unique, over-the-top Chinese ensemble. He commits deeply to each character’s physicality so much that it is shocking to see his vital frame age into that of a gray bureaucrat.
This show is worth the price of admission for the guffaws, but if the script is harboring a big picture, it gets lost in translation.