When I recently saw The Mountaintop I steamed about its shoddy quality for hours. Ch’inglish is a play so lacking in substance that it barely stayed with me to the corner.
This is the story of an American man, Daniel Cavanaugh (Gary Wilmes), who decides to start his life over by seeking business in China. He meets with an Englishman, Peter Timms (Stephen Pucci), an ex-patriot who has spent the better part of 19 years teaching in China and who now wants to be Daniel’s translator/consultant. Peter explains that there is no justice system in China, no legal system, and no contract that would mean anything. There is only “Guanxi”. “Guanxi” means relationships and the business of relationships. While there is no law that will protect a business person, there is the procedure of relationships and the particular Chinese logic of “predictable outcomes”. In other words there is a system to discover that is as complicated as the 10,000 characters of the Chinese language.
This is a terrific idea for a play, and somewhere underneath the mountain of fluff that is the text of this play, this idea remains pretty much undisturbed.
We follow our hero through long meetings where the “joke” is that translators don’t always do their job correctly.
We're a small family firm.
His company is tiny and insignificant.
Here's why we're worth the money.
He will explain why he spends money so recklessly.
Daniel is the CEO of Ohio Sinage and explains to people that he is there to spare the city of Guiyang the embarrassment experienced in Shanghai when The Pudong Grand Theatre opened with signage whose English translations were a joke. For example, the handicapped restroom’s sign read, "Deformed Man's Toilet."
Get where this is going? One stumbling misinterpretation after another nearly makes this Abbot and Costello and the Great Wall.
The characters here are caricatures. The Chinese are wrapped as tight as the crack of dawn, and still have time to be impressed with greatness – even when it is on the scale of Enron. They are committed to their Guanxi above all else. The American isn’t ugly; he is helpless and fumbling. Perhaps the only character we feel for is Timms who is beginning to lose his way in his adopted country and knows that England is no longer an option.
In line with their characters, these actors are little more than cardboard cutouts. There is no depth. No connection to who these characters really are. This is acting by numbers across the board.
The only plus to this is that there were Asian people in the audience as well as on the stage. As well, most of these actors, including Pucci, were executing a bi-lingual performance. Yay to that!
The audience laughed and clapped and laughed some more. Why? Who knows? Maybe it is because they were just so excited to see an Asian actor onstage they got carried away. I have written often about the Great White Way and its total lack of anything other than white writers, actors and directors – the latter being 99.44 men. Here is a play that started out wanting to change that, but ended up doing so in name only.
Great set though - seriously great set.
What the popular press said...
"Sporadically funny new play.... Even when its characters are floating helplessly on the wings of unhinged words, this play feels too solidly grounded for its own good. "
Ben Brantley for New York Times
"The steady stream of laughs come from botched translations, which, after awhile, gets repetitive. ...it's simply too obvious and plainspoken for its own good."
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News
"If miscommunication is comedy gold, ..., 'Chinglish,' ...[is] a veritable mine."
Elisabeth Vincentelli for New York Post
"Is perceptive and intelligent and told with a perspective not usually seen in the commercial theater. But more than anything else, it's just very, very funny."
Erik Haagensen for Back Stage
"Serves as a highly entertaining lesson that no matter how foreign we seem to each other, when it comes to making money, we're really pretty much alike."
Roma Torre for NY1
"A funny yet rueful new comedy. .... smartly-written play features a satiric streak that erupts into explosive laughter"
Michael Sommers for Newsroom Jersey
"Mildly entertaining comedy."
David Rooney for Hollywood Reporter
"Director Leigh Silverman, ... assert[s] the play's unpretentious charms."
Marily Stasio for Variety
External links to full reviews from popular press...