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David Henry Hwang's clever and entertaining comedy centers on the challenges faced by an American businessman in China.

Jennifer Lim and Gary Wilmes in Chinglish
(© Michael McCabe)
In David Henry Hwang's clever and entertaining comedy Chinglish, now at Broadway's Longacre Theatre after an earlier run at Chicago's Goodman Theatre, a white American businessman named Daniel Cavanaugh (Gary Wilmes) attempts to win over a prospective new client in China. However, he finds the task more difficult than he initially imagined, and that language is only the most obvious barrier to effective communication.

To assist him in his endeavor, Cavanaugh -- who runs a small family business in Ohio -- engages the services of Peter Timms (Stephen Pucci) a British man living in China, to serve as business consultant and translator.

Peter sets up a meeting with Minister Cai Guoliang (Larry Lei Zhang), who initially seems open to the idea of granting a lucrative contract to Daniel's company to manufacture the signage for an arts center being built in Guiyang, China. However, all is not as it appears to be -- a fact made clear to Daniel by the Vice Minister, Xi Yan (Jennifer Lim).

It soon becomes apparent that all of the main characters have hidden agendas -- including Daniel, himself. Some of these are exposed early on, while others come out as the action progresses. The relationship between Daniel and Xi Yan also takes on a sexual dimension, which further complicates matters.

Wilmes projects an open-faced earnestness that is appropriate to his character, and is one of the traits that most attracts Xi Yan. However, his portrayal doesn't change much throughout the two-hour play, even after Daniel's big secret is exposed.

The more layered work comes from Lim, who captures the nuances of her character's seemingly conflicted desires, as well as enriches the humor in both the English and Mandarin-spoken sequences. It's not her fault that the direct-address monologues she delivers to the audience don't quite work. Since there's simply very little contained in them that we're not already getting from her performance, they feel extraneous.

Director Leigh Silverman seems to have encouraged broader performances from the rest of her cast. This is possibly due to the fact that a large number of their lines are spoken in Mandarin, and so they feel a need to convey more through body language and facial expression. This works well enough for Zhang's Minister and for a scene-stealing turn from Angela Lin as a rather inept translator. However, it's not as effective in Pucci's performance, particularly in Peter's first scene with Daniel when they are both speaking in English.

David Korins' set -- which transforms quickly and efficiently into a number of beautifully rendered environments -- is yet another example of the superlative work that we've come to expect from this talented designer. The production also relies heavily on the Mandarin Chinese translations provided by Candace Chong, which are used to immediately and evocatively establish Daniel's sense of being out of his element.