Saturday, June 9, 2018

25 (2018-2019): Review: THE GREAT LEAP (seen June 8, 2018)

“Hoops Diplomacy”

Last night, as LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers were being whomped by San Francisco’s Golden State Warriors, I was watching an equally intense basketball involving a San Francisco team. The latter game, though, was fictional, and seen in my imagination, not in the flesh. 
BD Wong, Ned Eisenberg. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.
I’m talking about a scene toward the end of Lauren Yee’s gripping drama, The Great Leap, now at Off Broadway's Atlantic Stage 2, during which, in 1989, a team representing the University of San Francisco plays opposite a Beijing University roster in a “friendship” game that has as much drama happening off the court as on. The game itself is envisioned in the movements and dialogue of the four actors watching it; the otherwise naturalistic gym set by Takeshi Kata that serves for all the scenes doesn’t have a single hoop.
BD Wong. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.
The play, very loosely inspired by the experiences of Yee’s father, a phenom of San Francisco’s Chinatown sidewalk courts who actually did get to play in China, follows two arcs that come together at the end in a dramatic conclusion.
Ned Eisenberg, BD Wong. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.
One concerns the relationship between Saul (Ned Eisenberg), a Jewish, Bronx-born and raised, foulmouthed, washed-up former player and USF coach, and his complete opposite, Wen Chang (BD Wong), the dignified, robotically well-mannered, Mao jacket-wearing, English-speaking, Chinese coach.
Tony Aidan Vo, Ali Ahn. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.
The men first meet in 1971, when Saul is in Beijing to provide coaching advice to Wen, who discovers how different the aggressive American playing and coaching style is from the polite Chinese approach, which avoids physical contact. The cultural contrast between the men, while exaggerated on both sides, is nevertheless amusingly instructive. Saul, by the way, brags that he brought basketball to China but Wen corrects him, noting the game’s long history there and even that Mao Zedong loved it. Saul also makes no bones about his belief that no Chinese team will ever beat an American one, a remark that will come back to haunt him.
Ali Ahn, Ned Eisenberg. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.
The other arc begins 18 years later in 1989 and deals with the ambitions of a cocky, wiry, height-challenged, 17-year-old, non-Chinese speaking kid, Manford Lum (Tony Aidan Vo), whose hoops-loving mom has just died. A feral point guard with solid street creds, Manford—the theatrical avatar of Yee’s dad—boasts he can sink 100 free throws in a row. Manford, a high school senior, wants more than anything to join the USF team Saul is about to take to Beijing for what, oddly, he calls a “rematch,” which it certainly is not, with a team coached by Wen. Saul resists, not least because of Manford’s size (unlike Yee’s 6’1” father). Anyway, the presence of a high school kid, even such a short one, joining a college team for an international match against players described as seven feet tall, is one of several questionable things you have to buy to enjoy Yee’s play.
Tony Aidan Vo. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.
Looking after Manford’s interests is a vibrant young woman, Connie (Ali Ahn), who considers herself his “cousin” in the way of close but non-familial relationships within San Francisco’s Chinese-American community.
Ali Ahn, Ned Eisenberg, Tony Aidan Vo, BD Wong. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.
The game not only brings Saul and Wen together again, it also introduces several melodramatic plot devices concerning Wen and Manford. Even more contrived—but undeniably absorbing—is its nexus between sports and politics, since the game coincides with what was happening politically in China in June 1989. That, of course, is when thousands of young people were marching in protest through the streets of Beijing, shouting “U.S.A.,” encouraging one of them, wearing a white shirt and holding a parcel in either hand, to stand in front of a huge tank in Tiananmen Square as if daring it to flatten him in its treads.
Tony Aidan Vo, BD Wong. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.
Regardless of its several implausibilities, not all of which are noted here, and its need to depend on soliloquies for important exposition, The Great Leap (a title that connects the Great Leap Forward political movement of 1958-1962 to a script photo of Yee’s father leaping to block a shot) holds you as tightly as a ball in Bill Russell’s palm.
Tony Aidan Vo. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.
Director Taibi Magar (The Underground Railroad Game), making extensive use of excellent video projections by David Bengali, keeps the dialogue pounding, and the actors in nearly constant motion. The play’s technical expertise is further heightened by the thumping inter-scene music of Broken Chord and the period-perfect costumes of Tilly Grimes.
BD Wong. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.
The acting is uniformly exciting. Ahn makes the basketball savvy Connie delightfully spirited and outspoken, while Vo is magnetic as the demanding, eternally angry (a bit too much, I’d suggest), fire-in-the belly Manford. Eisenberg brings out not only Saul’s brashness and ruthless ambition but the anguish of a man separated by a continent from his young daughter, while the lustrous Wong, using a light Chinese accent, is perfection as the eternally restrained comrade forced to suppress his secrets and longings until circumstances overwhelm him.
Ali Ahn, Ned Eisenberg, Tony Aidan Vo, BD Wong. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.
The Great Leap has leapt to New York from workshops and productions earlier in the year, including those at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts and the Seattle Repertory Theatre. It makes up for its various fouls with enough two and three pointers to make the game worthwhile.


Atlantic Stage 2
330 W. 16th St., NYC
Through June 24