There’s a wryly telling observation, often attributed to George Bernard Shaw, that America and England are two nations “divided by a common language.’’
What, then, of America and China, two nations divided by different languages yet increasingly interdependent, their economic and geopolitical destinies entwined, their citizens drawn together in matters business and personal?
There are bound to be awkward moments and unintended consequences in a relationship that fraught — and rich material for a playwright with eyes and ears as sharp as David Henry Hwang’s. His “Chinglish’’ is now at Lyric Stage Company in a briskly entertaining and incisive production directed by Larry Coen.
“Chinglish,’’ which opened on Broadway last year, generates sparks from the cultural collisions — some comic, some not — that result when a Midwestern would-be wheeler-dealer named Daniel Cavanaugh (Barlow Adamson) arrives in Guiyang, China. It’s a provincial capital in the country he describes as “the greatest pool of untapped consumers history has ever known.’’
The head of a family-owned sign-making company, he enlists the help of a British consultant, a longtime local named Peter (Alexander Platt), who says he can win Daniel’s firm a lucrative contract to supply signage for the city’s new international cultural center.
Key to Daniel’s sales pitch to the minister of culture (Michael Tow) — conducted with the dubious assistance of a hilariously off-the-mark translator, played by Tiffany Chen in bright red heels — is the promise that his company’s signs will contain accurate English translations. This, he argues, would be in contrast to the new theater in Shanghai, where the English signs (e.g., “Slip and Fall Down Carefully”) invite ridicule from foreigners.
The vice minister, Xi Yan (Celeste Oliva), appears deeply skeptical, even hostile, while Daniel is making his proposal. The play contains stretches of Chinese dialogue whose English translations are provided in surtitles, and she speaks in Mandarin as she bitingly informs the minister that Daniel is from Cleveland, “a significant manufacturing center . . . or it was, back when the US still manufactured things.’’
“Chinglish’’ heads in unexpected directions, through a minefield not just linguistic but romantic and moral, and the truth turns out to be another commodity that can be manufactured, or manipulated, or concealed. While Hwang’s play is often very funny, his humor is spring-loaded with salient points: about the consequences of misunderstanding for people and nations alike, especially when the balance of power is shifting, and about the many forms exploitation can take.
It’s a mix of tones and rhythms to which Coen brings the same sure hand he displayed at the helm of such divergent comedies as Charles Busch’s riotous “The Divine Sister’’ last season at SpeakEasy Stage Company and Theresa Rebeck’s “The Understudy’’ at the Lyric a couple of seasons back.
Barlow, so fine earlier this year as a war correspondent in the Lyric’s production of Donald Margulies’s “Time Stands Still,’’ delivers another deft portrayal of a man caught in the middle of forces and events beyond his control. He locates the trace of Willy Loman-esque wistfulness beneath Daniel’s outward show of bravado.
There’s a poignantly lost quality as well to Platt’s portrayal of Peter, who is floundering as he tries to reinvent himself, and to Tow’s minister of culture, coping with a reversal of fortune. Both actors do a fine job peeling back the layers of their characters.
But the emotional center of “Chinglish’’ belongs to Oliva’s Xi Yan. In the actress’s beautifully modulated performance, Xi is the picture of poised command one moment and anguished doubt the next, trying reconcile the conflict between her public and private selves. Oliva is moving in Xi’s brief soliloquies, where she struggles not just with her identity but with the weight of history and progress. She asks herself, “Yet now, am I any happier than my grandmother with her arranged marriage and bound feet?’’