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Shows Worth Seeing:

By David Henry Hwang
Longacre Theatre
220 W. 48th St.
Box office: (212) 239-6200

To judge from Chinglish’s reviews, the best thing about it is the parade of translation-bloopers it contains: one after another botched public sign and conversational howler whose bizarre Chinese-English misunderstandings form the meat of a fresh, if facile, comedy. The gaffes are indeed amusing: “Financial Affairs is Everywhere Long” (“Chief Financial Officer”); “Deformed Man’s Toilet” (“Handicapped Restrooms”); “Cleveland isn’t exactly a farming [village]—though I suppose it was at one time” (“He says their crops failed long ago”). One problem with focusing on such obvious ineptitude is that it’s a tad condescending. We would never be so careless, of course . . . Another problem, though, is that the play’s ambitions run deeper than easy yucks. Chinglish is a muscular, clever and thought-provoking new work that shares major themes with M. Butterly.

The story is told in flashback by Daniel, a Cleveland sign manufacturer (played with dead-on Rotarian geniality--and anxiety--by Gary Wilmes) explaining to an American commerce league how he managed to get a business foothold in China. We see him arrive in the town of Guiyang three years earlier and work through a British consultant to establish “guanxi,” or relationships, that could help him sell signs. Long story short: the one relationship he establishes is with the town’s pretty Vice Minister for Culture, Xi Yan (played with powerful acuity by Jennifer Lim), with whom he has an affair. Misunderstandings accrue, and it gradually becomes apparent that Hwang’s real quarry is the question of whether the cultures Daniel and Xi represent have a prayer of understanding one another more than superficially under current circumstances.

Daniel, a seemingly plainspoken, midwestern straight-shooter, turns out to be anything but. And Xi, an ambitious professional we presume is using Daniel to climb her institutional ladder, proves to be a strangely loyal wife. Everyone wants to be seen as honest but no one can be taken at face value. Americans evade criminality, Chinese treat that criminality as sexy (mere association with Enron is a bankable credential, for instance), and Confucian values are as slippery and negotiable as credit-defuault swaps. Both these cultures are palpably adrift from their moral foundations, and that ultimately turns the comedy of those ill-considered signs into a mere sugar-coating over a disturbingly grotesque inter- and intra-cultural impasse.


Other Desert Cities

By Jon Robin Baitz
Booth Theatre
222 W. 45th St.
Box office: (800) 282-8495

If you share my view of Jon Robin Baitz as a talented and ambitious playwright who too often gets trapped by his own rhetoric, then Other Desert Cities will happily surprise you. Unlike previous Baitz works like The Film Society and Substance of Fire, this new play doesn’t feel like a setup for a grandstanding climactic debate where everyone is implausibly articulate and the antagonists feel more like debating positions than people. Other Desert Cities is a refreshingly messy family tale. It does have a climactic debate, but not one with a neat conclusion, and it leaves a strong sense that the story developed in ways that surprised the author. That’s a promising genesis for any drama. The family’s parents, played with dead-on bombast and bluster by Stacy Keach and Stockard Channing, are Hollywood royalty turned right-wing muckamucks. Having gathered their two grown children in Palm Springs for Christmas one year—Trip and Brooke, played with appealing relish by Thomas Sadoski and Rachel Griffith—they are forced to confront a closeted old ghost when Brooke shows them the typescript of a searing memoir she has written about her long dead brother. So far, so trite. Family reunions spoiled by angry progeny are as common as drunken Irishmen in the theater. And this family argument takes on a worryingly familiar political cast as liberal Brooke accuses Reaganite mom and dad of callous selfishness. Thankfully, events take a sudden and utterly unpredictable turn here that, among other important matters, completely reboots the family argument. Identities are fundamentally questioned, fixed moral positions are examined and overturned, and rather than resolving the many loose moral threads, the play ends up tying them into fascinating new knots. Joe Mantello’s production is perfectly calibrated to set up both the big surprises and the crucial emotional steps along the way to maximum effect, and in the end the evening grips you in ways you could never have anticipated.



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