Misunderstandings are everywhere in “Chinglish,” David Henry Hwang’s very funny play about an American sign manufacturer trying to do business in China. It’s not that people in this giddy cross-cultural mashup don’t mean what they say. It’s just that no one’s sure how to say it in another language.
So much is lost in translation, and those signs, shown in the first scene’s slide show, are just the beginning: “Watch your step” becomes “Slip and fall down carefully.” And don’t even ask what “Don’t forget to carry your thing” might mean.
Hwang’s 2011 comedy, which was a hit in Chicago and on Broadway, made its West Coast premiere Wednesday in an irresistible Berkeley Repertory Theatre production.
Leigh Silverman’s smart, stylish staging launches the company’s 2012-13 season on a hilarious high.
Hwang, of course, has been dramatizing East-West relations since his 1988 hit, “M. Butterfly.” But he’s created one of his most sympathetic characters in Daniel Cavanaugh (Alex Moggridge), a down-on-his-luck owner of an Ohio sign company.
Visiting China to secure contracts for signage at Guiyang’s new cultural center, he’s the picture of American enterprise — earnest, optimistic, eager to please and ready to deal.
Unfortunately, he’s not bilingual. His initial pitches — translated with something less than idiomatic precision — get him off to a poor start with the city’s leader (Larry Lei Zhang as Minister Cai.) And when he falls for the beautiful, cryptic vice minister (Michelle Krusiec as Xi Yan), Daniel begins to realize he’s in way over his head.
Moggridge traces Daniel’s bewilderment, and ultimate revelations, in a sublime comic performance, and Krusiec strikes an ideal blend of acumen and allure.
Celeste Den, Vivian Chiu and Austin Ku score as various aides and translators, and Brian Nishii exudes exasperation as Daniel’s British pal, Peter.
Silverman’s production is note-perfect, with the designs — David Korins’ ingenious Chinese puzzle of a set, Brian MacDevitt’s punchy lights, Anita Yavich’s witty costumes and Darron L. West’s atmospheric sound — a constant delight.
Hwang understands both cultures well enough to make the story resonate, and his use of mistranslation earns waves of laughter. But there’s something poignant about the way the play looks at language. It’s there in every awkward exchange between Daniel and Xi — all human communication is flawed, Hwang suggests, and that makes “Chinglish” a timeless play, not just a contemporary one.