"Chinglish" is billed as a comedy of mistranslation, and that's what audiences will watch -- at first.
"Playwright David Henry Hwang gives you exactly what you [expect] very early on, and then it keeps going into surprising places," says director Larry Coen. "It's almost like a Hitchcock movie, with mystery and plots and schemes. There's this ordinary guy caught up in a world beyond his understanding."
That ordinary guy is an American who travels to China to make a business deal. He doesn't know a lick of Mandarin, so he must communicate through translators.
"The story is about how language is just a sheet of ice over a sea of potential understanding," explains Coen. "When you translate the words, you're not necessarily translating the meaning."
There are T-shirt slogan-like translation blunders ("I love you" gets mangled into "Frogs love pee") but it's also about larger behavioral misunderstandings.
"In China, before people place trust in one another in a business relationship, there must be a deeper understanding of who you are as a person," says Coen.
The play explores how Americans are perceived by others, and vice-versa.
"We tend not to speak other languages or to be as familiar with other cultures," says Coen. "We don't contemplate culture differences like other parts of the world need to."
‘Not a cutesy-pie look’
Asian actors have the fewest job opportunities, say Coen. The five meaty Asian roles in this show all require the actors speak Mandarin. “This is not a cutesy-pie look at Chinese people,” says Coen. “David Henry Hwang said he wanted to have the Mandarin in there to give the characters ‘the dignity of their own language.’ We’re very proud of that.”
Don’t worry: English translations are projected above the stage.
If you go
Friday through Dec. 23
The Lyric Stage Company
140 Clarendon St., Boston