(Michael Feingold’s article ran 11/2 in the Village Voice.)
"I gotta use words when I talk to you," said T.S. Eliot's Sweeney Agonistes. As a translator myself, I know what he was agonizing about. Words, like people, don't always mean exactly what they say. Even when you think you've captured their sense, a darker surprise emerges: Another person's idea of that sense will not be the same as yours. That dark underpinning is the bottom layer of David Henry Hwang's Ch'inglish (Longacre Theatre), a sly, funny, multi-tiered joke with a laugh-out-loud surface that conceals a movingly somber aftertaste.
Hwang's hapless hero, Daniel Cavanaugh (Gary Wilmes), runs a small sign company in Cleveland that hopes to expand its marketing to China, where native companies supplying the signage for big institutions have been plagued by un-savvy translators, whose mishaps include rendering "handicapped restroom" as "deformed man's toilet." Cavanaugh has targeted Guiyang, a medium-sized city about to open a huge cultural center, where he runs up against the city's minister of culture, Cai (Larry Lei Zhang), who seems sympathetic, and the sharp-edged vice minister, Xi Yan (Jennifer Lim), who appears distinctly hostile.