Review: S.F. Playhouse’s ‘Chinglish,’ Directed by Jeffrey Lo, is plump to bursting with jokes about what gets lost in translation

Vice minister Xi Yan (Nicole Tung, left) and American businessman Daniel Cavanaugh (Michael Barrett Austin) discuss a deal in San Francisco Playhouse’s “Chinglish.” Photo: Jessica Palopoli/San Francisco Playhouse

The best comedic writers are like symphony composers. They prick and pique your ears. They establish conditions that make you crave exactly what they’re going to give you — tonic chord, development, discord, resolution — with the perfect number of rat-a-tat beats preceding a ker-splat punch line. One more syllable, and the whole thing would fall flat. 

To witness the translation-heavy scenes in David Henry Hwang’s “Chinglish,” which opened Wednesday, May 10, at San Francisco Playhouse, is to be in comedy’s equivalent of Davies Symphony Hall. In an Ohio sign manufacturer named Daniel (Michael Barrett Austin), hawking his wares to Chinese officials Cai Guoliang (Alex Hsu) and Judge Xu Geming (Phil Wong), Hwang has cultivated scenarios so ripe and plump they seem to burst with jokes about mistranslation and cultural differences.

Judge Xu Geming (Phil Wong, left), translator Zhao (Xun Zhang), prosecutor Li (Sharon Shao), American sign maker Daniel Cavanaugh (Michael Barrett Austin) and vice minister of culture Xi Yan (Nicole Tung) attempt to communicate in San Francisco Playhouse’s “Chinglish.” Photo: Jessica Palopoli/San Francisco Playhouse

There’s the way translators carry on with a conversation of their own, leaving out the monolingual Daniel, who in his entitlement to having his comprehension needs centered looks like a wanderer weathering a blizzard. There’s the delicious dramatic irony enabled by rapid-fire supertitles: We know exactly why, beats later, everyone is still somehow talking about Chicago, even as the hapless Daniel can only scrape the bottom of his improv bucket to come up with one more thing to say about it. 

Then there are the scrumptious pitfalls of employing an inexpert translator. Here local performer Sharon Shao proves herself a hero in the role of the mousy Miss Qian. It’s not just that her character translates “We’re a small family firm” into “His company is tiny and insignificant,” itself an accidental insight into all that business jargon conceals. Shao delivers the line with a nerd’s quiet self-satisfaction in her accomplishment. Her subtext is so clear and rich it’s like a full companion piece to Hwang’s script. In one moment, you can read “Wait, what did I say?” on her face. In the next, Miss Qian is absorbing with panic all the building tension in the room. And Shao makes the exquisite choice to translate not just text but emotion, though of course Miss Qian goes too far (a volcano where perhaps just a bit of emphasis was called for).

Translator Zhao (Xun Zhang, left), prosecutor Li (Sharon Shao), American sign maker Daniel Cavanaugh (Michael Barrett Austin) and Judge Xu Geming (Phil Wong) take a selfie in San Francisco Playhouse’s “Chinglish.” Photo: Jessica Palopoli/San Francisco Playhouse

In the show, directed by Jeffrey Lo, the one lingua franca is grift. Everyone has some kind of false front, racket, ulterior motive that Hwang hints at then reveals, each with impeccable craftsmanship and timing. 

He achieves all this without miring his comedy in cynicism. In “Chinglish,” each character is both con man and openhearted dreamer. Under Lo’s direction, each admires and sees herself in the others’ hustles, pivots, confessions and lusts. Likewise, each thirsts to be seen. Speaking the same language isn’t necessary; in fact, here it’s helpful not to. One can be more honest that way — and why bother with words when you can just pour yourselves into each other’s eyes?

American businessman Daniel Cavanaugh (Michael Barrett Austin, left) shares a moment with vice minister Xi Yan (Nicole Tung) in San Francisco Playhouse’s “Chinglish.” Photo: Jessica Palopoli/San Francisco Playhouse

Still, “Chinglish” suffers from a “So what?” problem. It backpedals right when it seems it might make a larger point about cross-cultural relationships, whether for business or pleasure. Moreover, its most poignant reveal, from savvy negotiator Xi Yan (Nicole Tung), doesn’t benefit from being written only in broken English then dissipated into a shrug. The whole show seems torn between romantic and cynical takes on human nature without having something to say about that ambivalence, other than, “… and everything turned out fine.”

Yet at the end of the play, as the white guy shuffles off and a speechifying Xi Yan and Judge Xu Geming address crowds, at least one point is sharp: The monolingual American does not end at the center of this international story.

Article by Lily Janiak for the SF Chronicle.