As David Henry Hwang's Chinglish demonstrates, negotiation among Americans and Chinese is seldom as snappy as the play's title. In this "new comedy about the misadventures of miscommunication," which is in its New England premiere at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston, an Ohio businessman travels to Guiyang, China, hoping to land a contract for signage at a new cultural center. His pitch: that his company's signs will be correct rather than risible to foreign visitors. Unlike placards recently erected in Shanghai, he assures, his handicapped-bathroom sign will not read "Deformed Man's Toilet."

Hwang gleans a paddy's worth of humor from this stuff, as he does from the freewheeling translations of a winsome young Chinese interpreter (translations from the Mandarin appear as supertitles above the action). When the hustling Clevelander, Daniel Cavanaugh, launches into why his company is worth its hefty fee, the translator announces, "He will explain why he spends money so recklessly!"

But there is more to Chinglish than amusingly butchered language. In ricocheting between English and Mandarin, the playwright (who won a Tony for M. Butterfly) sets up a challenge not only for his actors but also for himself. It's hard to fully develop characters and relationships when there are so many gaps as well as gaffes in their communication. Yet the denizens of Chinglish manage to be both stereotypical and surprising. I'm not sure I buy the romance between Cavanaugh and Xi Yan, a Chinese vice-minister of culture with more ambition than hearts and flowers about her. But it demonstrates fundamental differences between a rigid culture steeped in tradition and a brash adolescent one. And Cavanaugh's backstory, when it emerges, is as poignantly all-American as the Chinese reaction to it is a riot.

Larry Coen is at the helm of the sharp Lyric production, which trips smoothly between linguistic farce and lyrical episodes that hark back to ancient arts and the Cultural Revolution. Barlow Adamson whips up a convincing mélange of sincerity and dissembling as the Every Businessman looking for a fresh start. Celeste Oliva bristles with exasperated life as Xi Yan, ascending in the new China even as she questions her progress. And the whole cast — none of them fluent, but all well coached — manage to act while speaking Mandarin.

CHINGLISH :: Lyric Stage Company of Boston, 140 Clarendon St, Boston :: Through December 23 :: $25-$28 :: 617.437.7172 or 

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  Topics: Theater , Theater, David Henry Hwang, art features
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