Goodman Theatre’s “Chinglish” Takes a Deep and Funny Look at Desire

David Henry Hwang’s latest is a multi-layered journey through culture clash that’s both hysterical and heartbreaking.

But the show is more than just malapropisms and misunderstandings; it’s a deft look at longing, something that all societies share in spades.

Cleveland businessman Daniel (James Waterston) travels to China, in a desperate attempt to attract business for his family’s failing signage firm. He navigates the perplexing Chinese business landscape, first with the help of duplicitous consultant Peter (Stephen Pucci) and then the no-nonsense vice chairman Xu Yan (Jennifer Lim). He is drawn into a confusing culture where yes means no and nothing—from commerce to love—is what it seems.

Waterston is an appealing everyman, whose ignorance is overshadowed by his honesty. Lim’s character is a tough cookie looking for an escape from a loveless marriage; the voice of loneliness and yearning, she acquits Hwang’s flights of poetic language admirably.
But the depth of Hwang’s script doesn’t just extend to the protagonists; supporting characters are well-drawn as well. Angela Lin and Johnny Wu, double-cast as incompetent translators and stuffy party officials, are sharply versatile, landing some of the better laugh lines in the show. Pucci and Larry Zhang as a small-time minister are poignant as second-string also-rans struggling to make their way in a rapidly changing Chinese society.

Leigh Silverman’s direction keeps the pacing popping but takes time for reflective moments. David Korins’ stylish, revolving set keeps the exits and entrances whirling faster than a French sex farce on steroids. Darron L. West’s audio design effectively utilizes Asian hip hop and pop music to suggest the Western influences creeping into a stubbornly autonomous culture.

It’s two cultures literally feeling their way toward each other. It heads to The Shubert Theater in New York in the spring; get tickets now so you can tell your New York friends you saw it first.

“Chinglish” runs through July 24. For tickets, visit the Goodman Theatre’s website.