Sunday, May 14, 2023

"Chinglish" ★ ★ ★ ★

David Henry Hwang has won a Tony and an Obie and has been a finalist twice for a Pulitzer. His plays, like "M. Butterfly" and "Yellow Face" have been shown around the world, but none, perhaps, is as hilarious and audience-pleasing as "Chinglish." San Francisco Playhouse's production, directed by Jeffrey Lo with fabulous scenic design by Andrea Bechert as well as simple but necessary projections by Spenser Maturing, is nothing short of masterful.

An American businessman from Ohio is trying to sell his commercial signs to the politicians in charge of developing a cultural center in a mid-sized "midwestern" Chinese city. Daniel Cavanaugh (Michael Barrett Austin), with typical American hubris, feels he can charm the Chinese into a lucrative contract for his moribund family company. The Chinese, however, have a different agenda, based around securing income for their own families and associates. Alex Hsu plays Cai Guoliang, who is Minister of Culture. He is under pressure to give the signage contract to his sister-in-law. At the same time, Vice-Minister of Culture Xi Yan, seen above in the green dress and played to perfection by Nicole Tung, is married to Judge Xu, on left in red necktie (Phil Wong), and who might be the recipient of the contract if his wife can successfully seduce Daniel Cavanaugh.

A substantial portion of the show is spoken in Chinese, with supertitles. This is Hwang's supreme joke: no one completely understands what is going on, in part because everyone is receiving inaccurate translations, which reflect more what the translator wants his Chinese boss or American client to hear than what has actually been said.

Sound complicated? It's not. We, the audience, revel in the foolishness and confusion on stage.  It is farce, but we are used to this by now - the politics, especially, feel way too familiar. The pace of "Chinglish" allows us time and enough gags to figure everything out for ourselves. 

And the part about Enron. Wow.

One suggestion: for this performance, because you really need to make sure you can read the supertitles, we might suggest acquiring seats in the middle rather than on one side or the other. Don't miss this show.

RATINGS ★ ★ ★ ★ 

The San Francisco Theater Blog gives FOUR STARS to SFP's production of "Chinglish." Writing is first rate, and then acting, direction and sets keep everything bubbling along. When you consider how difficult casting was, wherein comedic actors fluent in Mandarin as well as English had to be found and assembled, these Four Stars feel even more remarkable.


San Francisco Playhouse

450 Sutter St. (2d floor of Kensington Hotel), San Francisco

Through June 10, 2023


Monday, May 8, 2023

" The Ni¿¿er Lovers" ★ ?

 Here are two nice things to love about Marc Anthony Thompson's "The Ni¿¿er Lovers." Number one, the wacky and intriguing opening scene, and two, the excellent performances throughout from Rotimi Agbabiaka and Aejay Marquis Mitchell. The Opening Night audience at the Magic Theatre laughed at every gag and howled for the actors when they came out for a bow. 

Everyone knows the theater is in trouble in America. Younger, more diverse blood is desperately needed, on stage and in the audience. It is always an admirable achievement to bring in a younger, hipper crowd, in this case one that finds the word "ni¿¿er" to be entertaining. For those of us who are not the target audience, yes we understand the cultural nuances surrounding this word in different situations, but if the N Word were not hateful, you wouldn't need the upside-down question marks. 

Of course, it's all supposed to be slapstick. But the greatest joke in the world is only funny until it truly is not.

This is author Thompson's first show and he also directs. After the enticing first scene, in which Agbabiaka and Mitchell play two unsuspecting Africans who are heading onto a slave boat thinking they have signed up for a cruise -- "Did you apply for House or Field?" --  the action pivots into a variety show, where M.C. Tanika Baptiste tries to make the audience laugh every time she screams "Ni¿¿er" or "My Ni¿¿er!" or "Ni¿¿er Lover!" 

After the final curtain, the author came to the stage to deliver a long thank you. He apologized to "those who might be uncomfortable with the word 'ni¿¿er.'" What would have comforted us more might have been a real ending. 

This show is also a musical, with songs written by the playwright, about whom the Playbill notes "Marc Anthony Thompson is a reluctant singer and indolent songwriter."  

Sure, the whole thing is a joke. Sure, it's also a joke that killing white people gives the characters super powers. Yes, they also get to include gender and the Jews ("Mazel Fucking Tov!") for no discernible reason. Perhaps the bigger joke is on us.

There is also no way to write this review without sounding old and white and in the way so we stop here.


The San Francisco Theater Blog awards "The Ni¿¿er Lovers" One Star with a Question Mark. The Star is for Agbabiaka and Mitchell, with gratitude. The question mark is a thank you for whomever reached through the curtain to remove the dildo. 

This production needs a lot of editing, but it has promise. If it really is to be a musical, some of the actors need to be given something more tuneful to sing so they can be a little surer of their notes. 

"The Ni¿¿er Lovers"

The Magic Theatre

Fort Mason, Building D, San Francisco

Through May 21