David Henry Hwang’s CH’ING-LISH (at Lyric Stage through Dec. 23rd) has a boffo beginning: An American businessman meets potential Chinese clients with a less than stellar interpreter. The delicious miscommunication reminded me of the flap created by a rookie translator when President Jimmy Carter visited Poland. A warm “I love the Polish people” unfortunately morphed into “I (expletive deleted) the Polish people.” Director Larry Coen’s exquisite comic timing makes for a priceless three part journey from original statement to translated Chinese to supertitles (so we know what the Chinese officials are hearing).
What comes after that, it seemed to me, went in circles. Except for the romance, the waters seemed pretty muddied. It’s almost at play’s end when Whang reveals why the businessman has been refused, rejected and embraced in a maze of confusing political intrigue. For me, it came too late and with more questions than explanation answered.
What makes CH’ING-LISH enjoyable is Coen’s superb cast. Barlow Adamson is the hapless foreigner, at the mercy of the wonderfully disinterested Tiffany Chen as his interpreter. Adamson is marvelous, gesticulating wildly with his whole body to communicate with charades what he cannot with words, to Celeste Oliva as his lovely and intense nemesis/advocate/lover. Michael Tow makes his small town administrator drolly exasperating. Peter Timms dazzles as the British “consultant” Adamson’s character hires to grease the wheels of Chinese commerce. Chen Tang gets lots of laughs insulting Adamson’s clueless American, then returns as a taciturn magistrate and Liz Eng wraps up the play as a no nonsense, savvy official.
Across town, translations of a different sort, pepper Ginger Lazarus’ THE EMBRYOS (at Factory Theatre through Dec. 16th). The Fresh Ink Theatre production is a fertile little send-up of Tea Party, right wing dogma, chiefly the “life begins at conception” bit…although Lazarus fits in some nifty animal rights jabs (Thank you, Ginger), too.
If those frozen embryos are people (after all, the eggs have been fertilized, just not embedded yet), then parents ought to have the right to take them home, thaw them and raise them! Director Dawn M. Simmons’ cast has a field day, doing just that. The playwright’s inventive conceit is that the audience can understand what the embryo-children are saying, where their parents hear only burbles and gurgles. Their language is almost English, lacking a few consonants here and there, slurring a few syllables now and then. Once your ear adjusts and you begin to translate, it’s simply hilarious. And when little Eggo sings, it’s divine.
If SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE wanted to improve those lame skits they’ve been passing off as comedy of late, they’d do well to beat a path to Lazarus’ door. EMBRYOS is SNL ready, with the hungry, differentiating tykes gobbling take out, initiating a crime spree and dispatching hostages willy-nilly.
Gillian Mackay-Smith is ferociously funny as the Christian fundamentalist Mommy. Terrence P. Haddad makes smarmy an art, always regretting too late what comes out of his mouth as Daddy. Louise Hamill and Phil Berman are precious as the wee ones, wreaking havoc as toddlers are wont to do. Tasia A. Jones is splendid as everyone else, from researcher to pizza deliverer. Special mention must be made of John J. King’s gigantic fallopian tubes which hover over the stage, reminding us that reproductive rights hang in the balance.