Peter O'Connor and Jeff Locker in "Chinglish."

Sitting in the audience before the start of PCS’s Chinglish, you’ll hear what I can only assume is pop music from the People’s Republic tumbling out of the speakers: the familiar synth and plodding bass drum of western club hits set with Chinese lyrics. It’s a harbinger for what’s to come from a production that mostly packages cultural fascination in an easily digestible form. An American businessman tries to land a deal in China, makes a fool of himself, becomes involved with a woman; hilarity ensues. Chinglish is enjoyable enough while it lasts, but it leaves you feeling underwhelmed once the curtain falls.

In part, this is because the play’s humor stagnates, relying almost entirely on the comedic outcome of poor translations as Ohioan Daniel Cavanaugh tries to score a contract building signs for a mid-sized Chinese city (“we are a small, family-run firm” becomes, for example, “his business is tiny and insignificant”). The gag is funny at first, but David Henry Hwang’s script doesn’t take it anywhere, and it’s ultimately no more pleasure than you’d get from scrolling through Engrish.com on your lunch break. Worse, the jokes that stray slightly from this format leave the unsettling impression that the laughs are coming from cheap cultural stereotypes.

But it’s not as a one-trick pony that Chinglish ultimately fails; it’s as an investigation of cultural difference. A romance between two married people turns out to be an unsatisfying way to engage the topic, because extramarital affairs are rife with misunderstandings and incorrect assumptions even among people who share cultures and languages. It’s never really clear whether the tensions between Daniel and his Chinese mistress are culturally fascinating or just the sort of thing that happens when you cheat on your wife during an overseas business trip.

Chinglish
Portland Center Stage
Thru Feb 2

Unfortunately for Hwang’s plot, I’m not sure business makes a much better entry point from which to dive into the cross-cultural waters. We’re meant to believe that Daniel comes to a personal epiphany through his experiences with Chinese social norms, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that he’s simply figured out the easiest way to make money. In a sense, Hwang has written himself into a corner from which he can’t say anything salient about the difficulties and rewards of exploring another culture.

These failings are no fault of the actors, who did all they could with a script full of stuttered phrases and the oppressively simple syntax of unmastered tongues. It was especially impressive to watch Jeff Locker, whose British consultant was the most developed of the bunch, switch effortlessly from English to fluent Chinese without skipping a beat (Locker was a TV and radio personality in China and Taiwan for 15 years).

Ultimately, though, there just isn’t much to take from Chinglish other than easy entertainment. It’s an assured production of an anemic script that aims for something like Lost in Translation, but lands much closer to Spanglish.

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