Laughter translates well in Lyric’s ‘Chinglish’

BOSTON — When it comes to translating English into Chinese and Chinese into English, there are many moments of “you can’t get there from here.”
Barlow Adamson, playing businessman Daniel Cavanaugh in the Lyric Stage Company production of David Henry Hwang’s “Chinglish,” has sage advice for those hoping to do business in China: “Always bring your own translator.”                        

Celeste Oliva and Barlow Adamson in a scene from Lyric Stage's "Chinglish."

Celeste Oliva and Barlow Adamson in a scene from Lyric Stage’s “Chinglish.”

Mandarin, as Cavanaugh points out to the audience in an aside during the show, has 10,000 characters.
Cavanaugh has gone abroad seeking business for his family-owned, down-on-its-luck, Ohio-based sign company, hoping to land a lucrative deal to build signs for the new cultural center in Guiyang, a provincial capital.
Unfortunately for Cavanaugh, he doesn’t speak Mandarin, the dominant Chinese dialect, and that is at the crux of his problems gaining traction in Hwang’s warm, funny take on the effects of the language gap and the clash of cultures.
Trade between the U.S. and the People’s Republic of China now accounts for almost $500 billion a year and for years China has been actively sponsoring and paying for Chinese Language classes in many American schools.
In “Chinglish,” Cavanaugh ‘s language gap and his unfamiliarity with Chinese way finds himself relying on a British transplant named Peter (Alexander Platt) — or “Teacher Peter,” as his Chinese friends call him — to find his way through the thicket that is doing business with officials in Guiyang, what Minister of Culture Cai Guoliang (Michael Tow) modestly describes as “a small city” of about three or four million.
There’s only one problem — Peter isn’t really a business consultant, and his early efforts are dismal.
Compounding the problem is an enthusiastic but incompetent translator named Miss Qian (Tiffany Chen in a nice comic turn) whose translations are not in the same zip code as what Cavanaugh actually said and hoped would be conveyed.
When Cavanaugh says “Here’s why we’re worth the money,” it is translated and becomes in Mandarin (and retranslated into English super titles above the stage) as, “He will explain why he spends money so recklessly.”
In a forest of fine performances, Celeste Oliva as Xi Yan stands the tallest, playing the sharp-tongued vice minister of culture and someone who is playing all the angles and has her own agenda to consider.
Hwang also finds time to poke fun at cultural differences; Cavanaugh is a former Enron employee, and it turns out his Chinese hosts are most impressed that he was part of the largest and most infamous business scandal in American history, and happened to know most of the major players.
Adamson does harried and frazzled very well and it serves him well in this role. His halting and often hilarious attempts to speak Chinese are actually endearing, especially when he struggles to express his affections during an illicit but exciting affair.
Playwright Hwang said in an interview with the Boston Globe that David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross” was his model for “Chinglish,” and that both works have to do with way we deceive when do business with each other
“Chinglish” also is about the art of the deal, how alliances can shift, how your friend today is tomorrow’s enemy and vice versa.
“Chinglish” isn’t an easy show to do — it took intense preparation by the cast with language coach Gail Wang — but in the competent hands of Director Larry Coen and his cast, it is a rewarding, entertaining night at the theater.
And, thankfully, laughter and applause don’t need to be translated.
The Lyric Stage Company’s production of David Henry Hwang’s “Chinglish.” Directed by Larry Coen. At the Lyric Stage Company, 140 Clarendon St., Boston, through Dec. 23.