"To take notice of safe: the slippery are very crafty" (Slippery slopes ahead)
"Deformed Man's Toilet" (Handicapped restroom)
"Be sure to carry your thing" (Take your things with you)
Such mistranslations brought the house down at Palo Alto Players' opening night of "Chinglish," David Henry Hwang's comedy about Chinese-American miscommunication. But beyond the hilarious verbiage -- which stopped the performance more than once as the audience erupted in noisy applause -- "Chinglish" makes two important points.
One: "When doing business in China, always bring your own translator," as Daniel Cavanaugh (Chris Mahle), a sign-making executive, discovers after multiple misadventures. And two: Even if the translations are correct, seemingly innocuous gestures and breaches of decorum can easily sabotage a business deal, because guanxi (relationships) trump contracts.
In China, as Daniel discovers, business is all about guanxi, nurtured through wining, dining, trading favors and kissing up to the right people. Sometimes, the kissing gets a little carried away. But more about that later.
In "Chinglish," which continues through June 28 at Palo Alto's Lucie Stern Theatre, playwright Hwang moves in a far different direction from his tragic "M. Butterfly" and the semi-autobiographical, provocative "Yellow Face," both of which were presented here by TheatreWorks.
This is a crowd-pleaser, peppered with witty dialogue -- in Chinglish, English and Mandarin, with outrageous mistranslations popping up on a screen -- inviting the audience to chuckle knowingly at messages that are lost on the characters. As a result, there's a tendency for American theatergoers to gloat in superiority -- until they discover that the mistranslations cut both ways.
With the wrong accent or a misplaced letter, Daniel's attempt at "I love you" becomes "Snail loves cow" or "Frog loves to pee."
The plot of "Chinglish" will resonate with Americans who attempt to do business abroad -- even those who think they know the rules may not understand the game. Daniel, CEO of a modest Cleveland-based signage company, decides to take on the Chinese market, starting small in Guiyang, a provincial capital in southwest China. He thinks he can build an international business by providing correct English signage for a new cultural center, preventing the embarrassment that has resulted elsewhere. In the process, he hires Peter Timms (Michael McCune), an Englishman living in China, to serve as his consultant, translating and finessing his path to the right officials.
But the finessing runs awry. They humiliate officials by pointing out bad translations -- which the Chinese don't find laughable. To make matters worse, Peter has an anger-management problem. Meanwhile, the Chinese translators have their own agendas -- and the ball is in their court.
Peter's primary contact, Minister Cai Guoliang (Jeffrey Sun), has a different agenda. So does Xi Yan, the conniving vice minister, played with panache by Joyce Liu. She seduces the clueless Daniel, creating further miscalculations and misinterpretations. Falling in love in China, he learns, doesn't mean following one's passion: It may simply be an escape.
"Chinglish" makes serious points about love, responsibility and honor, but after all, it is a comedy and never preachy. Lily Tung Crystal, making her directorial debut after previously performing in "Chinglish," selected cast members who are skilled linguists. Six of the seven actors speak Chinese languages, including McCune, who offstage directs an organization that advances human rights in China. His Chinese sounds superlative, but he sometimes delivers his English lines a little too quickly.
Dianna Hua Chung, in double roles, offers moments of hilarity as both a translator and prosecutor. Sun, as the chain-smoking, cell-phone-obsessed Cai Guoliang, reveals the quiet strength of a Chinese official whose paramount goal is preserving his dignity. Rounding out the cast are Phil Wong and Isabel Anne To in multiple roles.
Sets and costumes by Kuo-Hao Lo and Y. Sharon Peng, respectively, and scene-changing music from traditional to electronica selected by Crystal and Jeff Grafton, underscore shifts in a country that is rapidly evolving -- not to mention misunderstood.
What: Palo Alto Players' presents "Chinglish," by David Henry Hwang
Where: Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
When: Through June 28, with shows Thursday, 7 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m. Post-show discussions June 18 and 25.
Info: Go to paplayers.org or call 650-329-0891.