You don’t have to be a diplomat to know that opposing global powers United States and China have a hard time understanding each other. If you’ve seen the mangling of English of translated Chinese horoscopes on a restaurant placement or realized, like Penny in "The Big Bang Theory," that the tattoo you thought said "courage" in Chinese actually reads "soup." you have firsthand knowledge. The Lyric Stage Company explores these linguistic fumbles and more in the witty and entertaining Chinglish.
Scripted by Tony winner David Henry Hwang, "Chinglish" follows an Ohio businessman Daniel Cavanaugh (Barlow Adamson) trying to win a contract to provide signage to the new cultural center in Guiyang, China. With the aid of translator/consultant Peter Timms (Alexander Platt), Daniel aims to show cultural minister Cai (Michael Tow) why his company is "worth the money" (hilariously interpreted by a giggling local translator as "He will explain why he spends money so recklessly") by avoiding signage mistakes that have embarrassed other provinces, such as a "Toilet for Deformed Man" instead of "Handicapped Restroom." Hwang’s script milks a whole lot of laughs out of such mistranslations, rendered in English projected onto the top of scenic designer Dahlia Al-Habieli’s utilitarian set.
Daniel is first stymied by vice-minister Xi Yan (Celeste Oliva), who then turns into his ally and even more, all for reasons that are as open to misinterpretation as Chinese-to-English translations. It’s a neat trick that Hwang plays -- although the play starts out as comedy or even farce, it turns into less a play about language and even cultural differences and more about the universality of missed cues and mis-set expectations.
Director Larry Coen keeps the pacing brisk and the action tight, allowing the actors to land every laugh line, but also wisely slowing things down for the afternoon delights shared by Daniel and Xi, allowing a fast series of comedic mistranslations to ease into an unintended reflection once the two make the mistake of mentioning their spouses. Daniel admits he’s not keeping in touch with his wife, blaming the time difference, "Day is night, night is day," which Xi misunderstandings at a literal level while getting the subtext, answering, "Husband, wife. Day, night."
Coen also eases up on the pace and adds in some elements of Chinese theater for some spare, touching monologues by Xi, grappling with her affair and her own desires and ambitions. Oliva as Xi gives a fascinating performance, growing and deepening her portrayal from bitchy caricature to a nuanced modern working woman who’s not entirely sure she’s any happier than her ancestors, despite their bound feet.
Oliva’s chemistry with Adamson as Daniel is sweet and believable. Adamson perfectly portrays Daniel’s midwestern honesty and optimism without veering into corniness and is equally adroit at being goofy and romantic. He even believably sells, with a great deal of enthusiasm, a secret Daniel’s been carrying around.
Just as good is the other "couple": Platt as British ex-pat Timms and Tow as Minister Cai. At first, Platt plays Timms as the smartest guy in the room, with flawless English and Mandarin and nimbly helping Daniel navigate the cultural quirks of negotiating with the Chinese. Later as Timms’ dreams falls apart, Platt is nicely hysterical and then resigned, with a lovely scene with Tow as both Cai and Timms realize that they’re brothers who would have thrived in an earlier decade but aren’t able to keep with the frenetic pace of change in China.
The Lyric’s production also features Tiffany Chen, Chen Tang and Liz Eng playing a variety of parts (most memorably Tang as a prissy, nepotistic translator). The trio shines in an extremely funny scene where Daniel’s past is revealed, although their portrayals of Chinese bureaucrats might bleed into caricature, it’s with a knowing wink.
The show’s brisk pacing sometimes trips itself up, when the projected translations of the Mandarin dialogue appear a bit late, dulling the comedic effect, but that timing should improve with more performances. The rest of the technical aspects of the show are already smooth and effective, with Matthew Whiton’s lighting design creating isolated playing spaces on Al-Habieli’s set.
The one curiosity is the inter-scene sound by Arshan Gailus. Galius’ original music is fine, but it’s accompanied by sound effects and background crowd noise that ends as abruptly as it starts. That’s almost certainly intentional, perhaps meant to convey the disorienting crowds and noise of a large Chinese city, but instead the scene change sounds just call too much attention to themselves in a way they would not have if they faded out under the start of the next scene. It’s not ideal to be thinking about a sound cue when you should be paying attention to the first several lines of a scene.
Other than that quibble, the Lyric’s "Chinglish" is well-paced, well-acted and entertaining show.
Chinglish continues through December 23 at the Lyric Stage in Boston. For more info you can go to the company’s website.