You’ll laugh at the cross-cultural jokes of “Chinglish,” the new Broadway play about the comprehension gap between the world’s two economic superpowers that opened Thursday night at Manhattan’s Longacre Theatre. The problem is that it’s pretty much the same joke, repeated again and again, all through the show.
Playwright David Henry Hwang (“M. Butterfly”) has constructed an oh-so-slight comedy of miscommunication, set in a provincial Chinese town, where an Ohio businessman played by Gary Wilmes is trying to convince local officials to hire his firm to design the signage for a new arts center. But every step of the negotiation, it turns out, is a torturous game of international “telephone”: In a series of scenes, performed in English and Mandarin Chinese, Wilmes’s Daniel Cavanaugh is tripped up by inept interpreters and the impenetrable local code of bureaucratic conduct.
This leads to scores of exchanges between Daniel and the Chinese municipal officials (Larry Lei Zhang and Jennifer Lim), in which the meaning gets lost in translation. (The Chinese dialogue is rendered in English supertitles.) A minister’s observation about the businessman’s “frank American style,” for instance, is related in English by the translator as “He enjoys your rudeness.” The misunderstandings extend to an intense romantic entanglement between Daniel and Lim’s well-played Xi Yan.
Still, “Chinglish,” directed by Washington native Leigh Silverman, is far too content with running in place: It recycles the linguistic-confusion shtick so often that one’s interest wanes way before the machinations do. It’s a shame, because only rarely does Broadway tackle a subject as rich and topical as America’s need for a more sophisticated engagement with China. Hwang simply hasn’t figured out how to close the deal.