THEATER REVIEWS By Pat Launer
Breakdowns in communication can occur across genders, cultures or even species. A couple of theatrical cases in point: “Birds of a Feather” and “ Chinglish .”
After David Henry Hwang’s latest play made its Broadway debut in 2011, life inadvertently imitated art. “ Chinglish ” is a comedy about the difficulties of doing business in China, the hilariously erroneous translations, and the layers and subtleties of an inscrutable culture. Last April, the Bo Xilai scandal erupted in China, uncannily paralleling Hwang’s creation.
The wife of a formerly high-ranking Chinese politician was accused of murdering a British expatriate. The fracas was reportedly precipitated by conflict over the couple’s son, who was educated in England.
There’s no death by poisoning in Hwang’s play, but there is a high-powered political couple, a British ex-pat and a son who was helped to obtain an English education. There’s also an affair, a few betrayals and a broken heart.
The whole fictional story came unintentionally far too close to reality – which means that plans to stage the play in China aren’t going to come to fruition any time soon.
But we still have the SoCal premiere to savor, in a delicious production at South Coast Rep, a co-production with Berkeley Repertory Theatre.
Daniel Cavanagh arrives in the small provincial city of Guiyang (local definition of small = 4 million people) without any knowledge of the language or culture. He’s inherited a sign company and he thinks China is the perfect place for him to expand his reach and clean up the personal and professional debris he’s trying to leave behind. Stranded and clueless, he latches onto a slick British expat, who’s fluent in Mandarin and only too happy to help – for a hefty percentage.
After the poorly translated negotiations stall, the Vice Minister sets up a private dinner and offers her help. Up till this point, the laughter is virtually non-stop, what with all the wacky translations – in both directions. (The supertitles are wonderfully incorporated into David Korins ’ magnificent rotating set).
Then the laughter slows and the subliminal messages kick in – about misapprehensions on both sides; about doing business in a ‘backdoor’ economy; about the importance of building relationships with the Chinese; in short, the vast chasm in values and modus operandi between the two superpowers. Oh yes, and the vagaries and mis -perceptions of love.
Under the sharp, astute direction of Leigh Silverman, the new production is outstanding. The characters seem to be stereotypes, but the superb cast, in alignment with the expert costume design (Nancy A. Palmatier , based on the original design by Anita Yavich ), make the characters come vibrantly alive. The projections (Jeff Sugg and Shawn Duan ) provide invaluable assistance.
After the hilarity subsides, it all seems pretty hopeless – in terms of business, relationship and love. But it turns out that Daniel wasn’t deterred; he kept coming back to China, as we learn from the bookending conceit of the play: The whole story is part of a lecture to American entrepreneurs about how to do business in China.
Most of the action took place three years prior – Daniel has obviously learned a lot, including, perhaps most importantly, that you can’t possibly get everything you want in your East-West dealings.
The framing device may be a tad trite, but the play is supremely witty, savvy, smart and generally irresistible.
Also hard to resist are the avians in “Birds of a Feather” at Diversionary Theatre. The West coast premiere of this recent play by Marc Acito also uses comedy to convey a message – about acceptance, understanding and the malleable definition of family.
This play is fact-based, focusing on the red hawks nesting on a Manhattan high-rise overlooking Central Park, who became the darlings of New York – until the humans in the building, including former CNN anchor Paula Azhn and her real estate developer husband decided the birds had to go. And the City went wild.
Meanwhile, not far away, in the Central Park Zoo, two male penguins bonded, and when given an egg, they hatched and raised it as their own. When a book, “And Tango Makes Three,” was written about them in 2005, another furor erupted, and homophobic school librarians clamored to ban it.
So far, so true. Acito takes liberties with the stories, adding a couple of geeky, bird-loving human onlookers, who come together in the face of all this cross-species relationship debate. And to make his play fly, Acito has the birds talk. Hilariously.
The formerly philandering Pale Male and his demanding mate, Lola, find themselves in the midst of marital discord. So do penguins Roy and Silo, one more fey and superficial (swishy/ lispy /side-splitting Steve Gunderson), the other (wonderfully inhabited by Mike Sears), more contemplative, and a lot less happy being “imprisoned” in their enclosure.
The two birdwatchers – a female zookeeper and a computer guy (delightfully inhabited by Rachael Van Wormer and Kevin Koppman-Gue , with near-perfect Noo Yawk accents) – are also charming and likable. Paula and her husband are shallow and monstrous, as written.
Every actor is called upon to play multiples roles, and it’s especially thrilling watching Gunderson go from nancy penguin to macho hawk, as Sears morphs from querulous intellectual waddler to scarf-swishing, flirtatious and feminine “top of the food chain.”
All the couples have their expected breakups and reinstatements, but everyone winds up pretty satisfied in the end – including the iconoclastic penguin offspring, Tango.
James Vásquez directs with a light, comic touch that keeps things from becoming too silly, sentimental or twee. The script is very funny, and the wonderful cast is totally up to the quick-witted task.
Sean Fanning’s scenic design is both whimsical and real (we seem to be gazing directly into the penguin enclosure) and Jeannie Galioto’s ingenious costumes start out the requisite white and black but with a quick flick of a wrist, convert to sumptuous red-tails. Kevin Anthenill’s sound design is excellent, and Michelle Caron’s lighting adds texture.
This is 90 minutes enjoyably spent.
Through laughter, you sometimes learn best. And that’s kind of the message of both these fresh, new comedies.
“ Chinglish ” runs through February 24 at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa.
“Birds of a Feather” continues through March 3 at Diversionary Theatre in University Heights.
©2013 PAT LAUNER