By Beatrice Williams-Rude
A Deal, by Zhu Yi, is a play that was crying to be written, its subject matter now front and center.
It touches many of the great issues of today: Chinese values versus American; the family versus the individual; what constitutes truth and in whose eyes; the immigrant’s dilemma—to remain voluntarily ghettoized or to assimilate.
The focal point of A Deal is Li Su (Susu), the pampered daughter of an upper-middle-class Chinese couple, who have poured all their resources into giving her the best of everything including an Ivy League education. Li Su wants to be a theater performer and will stop at nothing to achieve her goal. At a casting call, to enhance her chances of getting a role she covets, she fabricates a background that matches the character’s and does indeed land the role. However, her deception will have profound consequences.
She becomes, briefly, the poster child of groups critical of China. Among her lies is that she’s an impoverished orphan.
Her affluent parents arrive from China: her father, whose intelligence was apparent early on was invited to join the Communist party when he was only 18, a most unusual event. He is educated—the first in his family to have a college degree—and was able to lift his entire family out of poverty. Her mother is a former actress whose career was ended by her husband.
The contrasting values of the parents and many Americans is encapsulated in the exchange between the father, who is proud of his party membership and cites it as proof of his good character, and his daughter who wants him to be silent on the subject.
The parents, who have smuggled some 6-million Yuan out of China, aim to buy an apartment for themselves and their daughter—and most emphatically they don’t want it to be in Chinatown. However, it is in Chinatown, in a local Chinese-language newspaper that they learn of their daughter’s deception and are devastated.
But when Susu, realizing the harm she’s caused, tries to confess to those she deceived, people couldn’t care less. It’s accepted that performers embellish their backgrounds. (There’s a prime example in All About Eve.)
The “deal” in the title refers not just to the real estate transaction at the end, but in the larger sense to the deal Li Su makes with life, in order to pursue her career in the theater.
A Deal is interesting, innovative—it’s structured in a series of vignettes—and thought-provoking. It’s also rich with humor. The slow-motion choreographed fight scene between the father, Mr. Li, and Peter, the mother’s one-time acting partner (and lover?) is hilarious.
The father, one of the twin poles of the play, is a marvelously constructed character, wonderfully played by Alan Ariano. We know this man, we understand him, we respect him, and we like him. The opposite pole is the daughter, brilliantly portrayed by the radiant Wei-Yi Lin. Her face conveys more than the word, a testament to “the Method.”
Peter, while well-played by Pun Bandhu, seems more a plot construct than a character. He represents the mother’s past and acts as a guide to American life. He’s a cab driver and real-estate agent. Mrs. Li, the mother, whose deep anguish we feel only toward the end, is gently played by Lydia Gaston.
The playwright, Josh Haley, a hard- eyed, unblinking observer of life, is coolly embodied by Seth Moore.
Helen Coxe is an utter delight, first as the casting director, then as the real-estate agent. Many of the actors play multiple roles. The work is splendidly directed by John Giampietro.
The scenic design by Frank Oliva and projection design by Ryan Belock work together to create visual effects that show exactly where the action is taking place. John Salutz, lighting and sound designer, is responsible for the stunning opening—a full-throated rendition of “This Is My Country.” Costumes are by Audrey Nauman.
Photos: Ben Hider
A Deal opens Nov. 20 at Urban Stages and plays through Dec. 10. Running time is an hour and 42 minutes without an intermission.
Urban Stages, 259 West Thirtieth Street in Manhattan. (Between Seventh and Eighth Aves.)