David Henry Hwang’s Chinglish is a full-proof, dialogue-fluid play which tackles social norms and cultural practices in the most approachable and seriously humorous way. SF Playhouse’s currently running production gives Chinglish the due diligence and attention to relationship-driven detail it deserves.
(Nicole Tung (Xi Yan) and Michael Barrett Austin (Daniel); Photo credit: Jessica Palopoli)
Jeffrey Lo’s helming of this show fits like a glove among Andrea Bechert’s stunning set design, seamlessly taking the audience from offices to hotels and restaurants with ease. The pacing Lo establishes from the jump gives audiences a lean-forward-in-your-seat energy while consistently prioritizing our understanding of the dynamics between American business, romantic, and dining norms and how they differ from those in China—specifically Guiyang—where the majority of the play is set.
Michael Barrett Austin delivers a loveable cad as Daniel, the American sign-maker trying to get a professional restart in China. Austin’s charm and determined attempts at connecting with his potential clients allow for the awkward situations and cringey misunderstandings to be moments for thoughtful laughter. Nicole Tung’s Xi Yan is a powerfully poised vice-minister, and serves as the character who connects most to Daniel. Tung’s comedic timing and knack for letting her face conduct all the subtextual opinions makes her performance a standout among the widely-strong cast.
(Alex Hsu (Cai); Photo credit: Jessica Palopoli)
Alex Hsu presents a dominating and affable Cai Guoliang, top client in Daniel’s pursuance of potential contracts. Hsu’s jocular demeanor and camaraderie with his cohorts and employees each have their own fully-realized familiarity and approachability which allows for the customs within Guiyang and America to be even more apparent and entertaining to watch develop. Sharon Shao gives a memorable scene as Miss Qian, a novice interpreter between Daniel and Cai, who gives her own finesse to the misinterpretations and blunt summations of the businessmen’s dialogue. Phil Wong is a hilarious Bing, Cai’s nephew and replacement interpreter, and is wonderfully savvy as the Judge Xu Geming.
(Phil Wong (pictured as Judge Xu Geming) and Nicole Tung (Xi Yan); Photo credit: Jessica Palopoli)
Wen-Ling Liao’s lighting design and Spense Matubang’s projections are terrific in keeping the subtitles as part of the acting rather than distracting. And I do really want the soundtrack used for scene transitions because the playlist is perfectly mood setting and catchy as can be.
Chinglish is a play which allows audiences, of any culture and profession, to take an educational trip in how status, customs, and language can both repel and unify. It’s a challenging one to stage, to be sure, but Lo and company have stepped up to the task and have produced a Chinglish that is a must-see.