How American perceptions of China have changed since "M. Butterfly," David Henry Hwang's 1988 Pulitzer-winning drama about an American diplomat, hopelessly obsessed with old-fashioned visions of beautiful Asian women, who gets seduced and deceived by an opera star just prior to the ascendance of Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution.
In Hwang's new comedy "Chinglish," which is set in the present day, China is viewed as a place not of exotic beauty, but of genuine economic opportunity.
The protagonist is David Cavanaugh (Gary Wilmes), an American businessman in China trying to win a contract to make the signs for a new arts center. In an early scene, he points out to government officials how another theater suffered from inadequate translations. For instance, the theater's sign for a wheelchair-accessible bathroom was written in Mandarin as "deformed man's toilet."
But Cavanaugh's attempt to be persuasive is thwarted by another interpreter's unsuccessful translations from English into Mandarin. For instance, when Cavenaugh claims that his business is a small family firm, it becomes "his company is tiny and insignificant."
Whenever the dialogue is in Mandarin, which accounts for about a third of the play, English translations are displayed with supertitles.
The play's best scenes, in which Hwang pinpoints the difficulty of conveying nuances and double meanings in the course of translation, are blissfully riotous.
The other half of the play, depicting Cavanaugh's uneasy, often deceptive relationships with his Mandarin-speaking Australian translator and a Chinese official with whom he has an affair, is far less captivating.
Even if the subplots come across as hackneyed, it can't be denied that Hwang has once again spotlighted culture clash in a most compelling way. And how often do you see a show with a mostly bilingual cast?
If you go: “Chinglish” plays an open run at the Longacre Theatre. 220 W. 48th St., 212-239-6200, cinglishroadway.com.