NEW YORK — It began, David Henry Hwang said, as a riff on “Glengarry Glen Ross,” the classic David Mamet play about real estate salesmen pitted against each other in a cutthroat competition to win a Cadillac and keep from losing both their jobs and their dignity.
Almost always, Hwang said, he uses another play as a formal model when he begins to write one of his own. For “Golden Child,” which was inspired by his grandmother’s stories of their family’s past in China, the model was Brian Friel’s Irish memory play, “Dancing at Lughnasa.” For “Chinglish,” a business-world comedy that premiered on Broadway last fall, he turned to Mamet.
“I started out by going, you know, I kind of want to write a play like ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’ set in China,” Hwang said a few weeks ago, seated behind the desk in his office at Signature Theatre Company on West 42nd Street, where he has a coveted playwright’s residency. “But then I also decided, oh, I want it to be kind of bilingual, and then I also put a romance into it, so by the time you get to the end of it, it’s not that much like ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’ at all.”
Even a quick glance at the script of “Chinglish,” which opens Sunday at Lyric Stage Company, shows how dissimilar it became: An enormous amount of the dialogue is in Mandarin. But the deal-making, the shifting and hidden alliances, the crossing of certain boundaries in pursuit of financial gain — all of this the plays have in common. And in each of them, a once-confident character reacts with desperation to a changing system he no longer quite understands.
“I think of ‘Glengarry’ as a show about . . . doing business, but it’s also about the roles that people play and the ways in which we deceive each other doing business, and I guess that’s the main link with
‘Chinglish,’ ” said Hwang, 55, who is best known for the 1988 Broadway hit “M. Butterfly.” “And the other thing that people have noticed, which I didn’t know that I was doing consciously, was just that the first scene of ‘Chinglish’ and the first scene of ‘Glengarry Glen Ross,’ they’re two-character scenes that take place in a Chinese restaurant. Of course, one of them is in China.” He laughed. “But still!”
In “Chinglish,” a former Enron employee travels to Guiyang, China, trying to win a contract to translate signage into English. But he knows neither China nor Chinese, and he requires a translator to make his case to a government minister. Miscommunication, both cultural and linguistic, abounds.
The Lyric’s staging is one of several “Chinglish” productions around the country this season, including a tour directed by Leigh Silverman, the play’s Broadway director.
“We sort of have control over that production. The Lyric will be the first kind of indie production, if you will. I’m really curious, ’cause it’s a hard play to do,” said Hwang, who is slated to be at the Lyric Friday night for a benefit for the Asian Task Force Against Domestic Violence. “You have to find all these bilingual actors; you have to find a white guy who speaks Mandarin well enough so that everybody else in the play thinks that he’s, you know, really good at speaking Mandarin.”
At the Lyric, said Gail Wang, the language coach for the production, the actors’ familiarity with Mandarin at the start ranged from zero to having been exposed to it at home. Wang, who was an English teacher in her native Hangzhou, China, before coming to this country, joined the project two months ago. She said that, in working with the performers, she adopted a strategy of focusing on a couple of key words or sounds in each line.
In an interview, Wang emphasized how hard the actors have tried to learn their Mandarin lines, whose meaning depends on both pronunciation and tone. But she also noted that it’s one of the most difficult languages for English speakers, and that after a year of studying it, “many students are still beginners.” She does not expect that the actors will speak the Mandarin perfectly.
“For many of them, they don’t know what they’re saying,” Wang said. “They know the English translation.”
“Chinglish” has a great deal of fun with mistranslation and with a Westerner’s struggle to utter a simple Mandarin phrase, its intended meaning mangled as the sounds leave his lips. But the playwright who wrote those lines isn’t fluent, either.
“I don’t really speak Chinese, for all intents and purposes,” Hwang said. “I took a couple years of it in college, so I kind of know how Chinese works, and I can maybe speak to cabdrivers, and that’s about it.”
The Californian son of immigrants — his father from Shanghai, his mother from the Philippines — Hwang first made a name for himself more than 30 years ago with the play “FOB.” The letters stand for “Fresh Off the Boat,” an embarrassed-by-association slur. It’s only since 2005 that he’s visited China regularly, for research and to discuss shows.
“I find it really interesting,” he said. “It’s a wonderful place to learn about, and it changes so quickly. One year in China is like five years in the outside world in terms of the rate of change.”
He’s discovered, too, that he feels more comfortable there than he expected.
“I fall into the category of being an overseas Chinese, but that still falls under the umbrella of being a Chinese person, so they do kind of accept me as being Chinese, which is surprising and kind of touching, I have to say,” Hwang said. “I remember going to Taiwan when I was really young, maybe 3 or 4, and my cousins over there sort of saying, ‘Well, you’re Chinese. How come you can’t speak Chinese?’ And that one sort of stuck with me, I think, for the next 30 years, and I felt better after I started going back to China and they sort of said that I was Chinese.”
As he talked, he was a few days away from a trip to Shanghai to do a dance workshop for “Kung Fu,” his Bruce Lee play-in-progress. It’s set to premiere in late 2013 at Signature, where a “Golden Child” revival opened in November with freshly written narrative bookends, the old ones having nagged at Hwang for years.
The Signature residency, the recent “Chinglish” run on Broadway, the $200,000 Steinberg Distinguished Playwright Award that he won in August: They’re all part of a resurgence for Hwang, who first tasted success in his early 20s and was all of 30 when “M. Butterfly” won the Tony Award for best play. He’s not quite sure what to make of the heightened attention this time.
“I’ve been thinking about it a little, because if ‘Chinglish’ had become a kind of ‘M. Butterfly’-sized hit on Broadway, then I’d understand it, because that’s what happens,” he said.
“ ‘Chinglish’ had certainly a respectful run, but not a hit run. So I’m like, why am I having a career moment now? It’s sort of a wonderful surprise, because it doesn’t conform to my ideas of how this business, as it were, works.”
“It feels a little bit like manna,” he said. “It just sort of fell from heaven.”