Drop Laugh Fork Gas

That’s vintage Chinglish (Chinese inflected English); a machine translation of daodixiaochaliaoqi — i.e. “to fall down, crack up and laugh yourself breathless.” More idiomatically, “to roll on the floor laughing your ass off,” or ROTFLYAO.

The cryptic headline offers a sample of the cross-cultural disconnect at the heart of “Chinglish,” David Henry Hwang’s bedroom/boardroom farce about Sino-Western relations at the dawn of the “Pacific Century.” Expect to ROTFLYAO non-stop at the play’s West Coast première, now through October 21st at the Berkeley Repertory’s Roda Theatre.

Nearly a third of the dialogue is in Mandarin, a language unknown to either Hwang or his director, Leigh Silverman (not to mention most of the audience). To bridge the gap, translator Candace Chong creates plausible, idiomatic voices for the Chinese personae and concocts hilariously off-beat mistranslations for the “simultaneous interpreters” in the negotiation scenes. And then she renders all those howlers back into English for the “surtitles” projected overhead. These surtitles give us in the audience a clairvoyant understanding of all that’s uttered on stage while half the characters have no clue what the other half is saying.

“Chinglish” tracks young Dan Cavanaugh (Alex Moggridge), CEO of a Cleveland sign-making company, who’s trekked to a provincial backwater of Southwest China to bid on a contract for the bilingual signage in a fancy new Cultural Center. Such signs are all-too-often marred by clunky Chinglish — a loss of national “face” that Dan hopes to spare his Chinese hosts.

Dan is a clueless neophyte at China trade. So he hires a jaded British consultant, Peter (Brian Nishii), whose foremost professional accomplishment is to have wangled a British University admission for the gormless son of Comrade Cai, the provincial Culture Minister (Larry Lei Zhang). Such rapport adds up to guanxi, a backlog of favors owed.

But Peter’s guanxi is trumped by that of the minister’s sister-in-law, who’s already been promised the deal. This Dan learns in a barstool tête à tête (pictured above) with Comrade Xi Yan (Michelle Kruciec), Cai’s adjutant, the frustrated wife of an up-and-coming Communist cadre. What with her pidgin English and Dan’s naiveté, it takes him awhile to figure out that his contract bid is stymied and she’s offering to help him end-run the blockage.

“But why would you do this for me?” he wonders. Because I like your “honest face,” she blurts. Whereupon he kisses her, she slaps him and they wind up in his hotel room in a state of semi-undress. To facilitate this whirlwind courtship, scenic designer David Korins has rigged his sets onto not just one but two revolving turntables that kaleidoscopically shift the locale from boardroom to bistro to bedroom and back.

But it takes more than fancy stagecraft to carry such a convoluted plot. The production rests on strong performances by all four lead actors. Moggridge’s Dan is a guileless innocent, more of a Midwest Candide than a Marco Polo. It took some 400 auditions to cast the role of Peter, but Nishii is a perfect fit — plashy, veddy British, but with truly impressive Mandarin. Zhang, as Minister Cai, manages to be endearingly smarmy, all in surtitles, without a single line of English to speak. As Xi Yan, Kruciec alternates Chinese eloquence and tongue-tied English, shrewd calculation and passionate abandon.

All goes well for Dan and Xi Yan until she discovers that there’s really no company behind him; he’s a freelance Army of One. The family’s Cleveland sign business went bust, he sheepishly admits, while he was off in Texas as a bit player in the Enron collapse. He glumly awaits her condemnation, but it turns out she’s thrilled. Just to have been involved in such a world-famous scandal makes him a business rock star in China — a “high-roller.”

Playing up this new-found cachet, Dan and Xi Yan retrace the round of bureaucratic gate-keepers and promptly win the signage contract. Cai, the obstructionist minister, is deposed on corruption charges and Peter is thoroughly debunked as a consultant.

Back in bed, in the afterglow of their triumph, Dan offers to leave his wife in Cleveland so he can make a life with Xi Yan. She’s horrified. Divorce is the farthest thing from her mind. In fact, she orchestrated all the signage contract in-fighting just to edge out Minister Cai and clear a path for her own husband’s rise in the Party hierarchy. The romance with Dan was no more than a self-indulgent embellishment of this core stratagem. As she gravely informs him (in Chinese), “if you can’t respect your own marriage, you become a danger to mine.” End of dalliance.

Well, compared to his “real world” analogue, Dan is lucky to have escaped with his life. As Hwang points out in the Berkeley Rep program notes, the “Chinglish” plot bears uncanny parallels to the ongoing tabloid drama of Bo Xilai, a one-time Politburo tyro now brought low amidst rumors of nepotism, corruption, “back-door” entry to British academe and a dubious liaison between a Western businessman and a high cadre’s wife.

Except in the real-world story, the Westerner winds up murdered his lady friend in prison for life. Eerily enough, “Chinglish” was written and staged well before the Bo Xilai scandal broke.

lincoln-kaye-mugLincoln Kaye is a forest fire lookout on Ironside Mountain in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. He was a foreign correspondent in Asia for nearly 30 years before retiring to Trinity County.

Lincoln Kaye
Lincoln Kaye is a forest fire lookout on Ironside Mountain in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. He was a foreign correspondent in Asia for nearly 30 years before retiring to Trinity County.
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