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'Chinglish' at South Coast Repertory A Smart, Funny Look at Cultural Differences

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In the modern media world we live in, where the tools of communication are more powerful than ever before, true communication can be difficult. Businesses and governments try relentlessly to stay on message, that message is generally quite partisan and truth is endlessly malleable. Imagine, then, the exponentially more complicated issues that arise when trying to do business in a foreign country, where not only the language is unfamiliar but also the culture is bewildering. This is the theme of David Henry Hwang's entertaining and thought-provoking new play Chinglish, which is receiving a first-rate production at South Coast Repertory.

American businessman Daniel (Alex Moggridge) has traveled to China to drum up work for his sign company, but he speaks no Chinese. To help with that problem he's hired consultant Peter (Brian Nishii), who will translate and advise. Daniel makes his presentation before Minister Cai (Raymond Ma) and thinks things went reasonably well, until he is met later by Vice Minister Xi Yan (Michelle Krusiec), who informs him that things are not at all how they seem.

Moggridge takes the straight-man/audience representative role and makes him endearingly earnest without ever letting that get boring. Krusiec creates an entrancing mix of giddiness and edginess as Xi Ma, a smart performance of the most intelligent character in the play. Nishii also excels as Peter, with a portrayal that embodies the show's theme of how the truth lies mainly under the surface like an iceberg, Peter's truths mostly hidden beneath a genial front. Finally, Ma is very amusing as the wily old minister, who isn't such a bad man beneath his obvious corruption.

Leigh Silverman's direction is deft, swiftly paced and alive to every detail. Her use of the double turntable set is expert, and she does something I've never seen before--staging bits of business on the exposed parts of sets while the turntables are moving to position another one. This allows the delicious illusion of characters entering an elevator on one part of the turntable set and then being already in bed in a bedroom set by the time the turntable has finished moving, an entirely theatrical delight.

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David Korins' sets are efficient and effective, particularly the hotel lobby with the working elevator illusion. Jeff Sugg and Shawn Duan's projection design, a vitally important element in a show with many subtitles, is crystal clear and well thought out.

Hwang's play is clever, moving and perspicacious, and has the added virtue of being entirely of the present. It's not political, but the wisdom of this microcosm can certainly apply to our macrocosm.

"Chinglish" plays at the Segerstrom Stage at South Coast Repertory through Feb. 24. Tickets are available online.