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Blagojevich tragedy not as alien as we might like

Updated: October 4, 2011 12:35AM

So now that it’s over — guilty on 17 counts — at least for now, what did we learn from the whole Rod Blagojevich mess? What’s the lesson, the moral of the story?

Nothing profound. I don’t think it even involves our political system. The true scandal is not what Rod did illegally, but what is legal, the location of that line he strayed over. Long after Blago is moldering in the federal clink up in Wisconsin, pols will still be selling the public interest, if not in quite the blatant, into-a-federal-wiretap way Rod managed.

Nothing odd or rare. I see this as more of a personal lesson. An ordinary tragedy. Rod tripped over the same thing that trips up lots of people: Hubris. Pride. Vanity. The belief that you’re the most important person in the world just because you’re you, wonderful you.

In all those tapes, Blago never pauses to say, “Of course, Illinois deserves another really good senator.” Not once. He never thinks about anyone who isn’t Rod Blagojevich.

Some of this is human nature. Some may even be necessary. Life is hard, and as we struggle up the hill we need a good head of self-regard to keep going. “If I am not for myself,” Hillel asked, “Who will be for me?”

That said, we have to tear our gaze away from our own precious selves — and I’m including myself, since some readers see me as the poster boy for self-absorption — to at least ask, “How will this look?” Blago knew the feds were on to him and did what he did anyway. He couldn’t stop. Many people can’t.

But many can. The first step is to realize that the other people are here, too. There are interests beyond your own. That sounds simple, but it can be tough. This doesn’t mean you have to hold a poll to decide what to do. Just that you need to look around sometimes and ask, “What do these other people think?”

There’s a second half to that Hillel quote: “But if I am for myself alone, what am I?”

Rod Blagojevich, obviously.

What’s Chinese for ‘Big Funny Hit Play’?

It says a lot that when given the chance to meet Sienna Miller at the world premiere of “Chinglish” at the Goodman Theatre Monday night, and the chance to meet David Henry Hwang, I shrugged off the starlet and hurried over to the playwright to pump his hand and tell him his new play will be a big hit when it moves to Broadway in the fall. Here’s why:

Humor is based in part on anxiety — does it address what people really fear? Think Charlie Chaplin eating a shoe, coping with being poor. And part on misunderstanding — think Bridget Jones dressed like a tart for the garden tea she thought was a costume party.

Hwang takes a situation that worries most Americans — China’s rise — and the impossibility of understanding each other, particularly in languages as different as Chinese and English, and builds a marvelous comedy. “Chinglish” manages the neat trick of being about issues, yet populated with real humans while consistently funny. I haven’t heard an audience laugh that much in years.

At the same time, it explores the hall-of-mirrors contradictions of China, where spectacular failure makes you a high roller, and disrespect for your wife irks your mistress.

The play will endure because it has characters, not cliches — the Chinese aren’t worker bees, the American isn’t an arrogant idiot. There’s sex, heartache, even a bit of song and dance. The only thing missing is a swordfight.

I’m not the reviewer, so I won’t go into details of the strong cast, except to note that actresses are going to be clawing each other to get at the part of Xu Yan, the scheming government official, though they’ll be hard-pressed to top the excellent Jennifer Lim.

Chicago is brimming with great theater, and it always scares me how close I come to missing something wonderful. Being your standard cloddish playgoer, I heard the title “Chinglish” months ago and, imagining a blend of Amy Tan and “Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy,” decided to skip it, until I heard that a quarter of the dialogue is in Chinese (don’t worry, with easy-to-read supertitles). My oldest son is studying Mandarin, and I figured he’d get a hoot out of it, which he did — it was worth going just to see Mr. Cool-Nothing-Affects-the-Godhead 15-year-old doubled over in laughter. I was too.

And just to show that some acts of kindness do go unpunished, in trying to help him refresh his language skills over the summer, I ended up seeing one of the funniest plays in memory. It runs in Chicago until July 24. After that, it’ll be parked on Broadway, and you’ll kick yourself for missing this story of the Ohio Signage Company’s frantic attempts to win over the officialdom of Guiyang, China.

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