by Michael Bracken
“This is a play about basketball, but it is also a basketball play,” says playwright Lauren Yee, whose The Great Leap,is currently in a full court press at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Stage Two. “The game is reflected,” she claims in an author’s note, “not just in the subject matter but the rhythm, structure, language, and how the characters move through space.”
That’s a lot to ask from a play. Yet, with plenty of help from Taibi Magar’s crisp direction, Yee delivers her basketball play as promised, without an actual basketball being dribbled. At times, The Great Leap moves with the speed of a fast break as the action shifts from one end of the court (Beijing) to the other (San Francisco), and from one era (1971) to another (1989). Occasionally, it calls to mind the timed patience of the point guard at the top of the key, looking for the best place to pass. But most of all it has the staccato rhythm of a player headed for the hoop, dodging his defender or plowing right through him.
Enter Manford (Tony Aidan Vo), a total basketball junkie with a mile-a-minute basketball rap. It’s 1989, and he’s accosting Saul (Ned Eisenberg), the coach of the University of San Francisco’s varsity team, right after practice. He’s a scrappy seventeen-year-old Chinese-American, and he’s short. He’s wearing a black armband, having just come from a funeral. He’s trying to get onto the team’s roster prior to its journey to Beijing for an exhibition game there. He rattles off reasons why Saul should take him with passion and punctiliousness. And speed; most of all speed.
Gray-haired Saul, whose opinions are well-set, wants none of it. He wants height. So Manford’s dream is crushed. But he’s persistent, and, not surprisingly, he boards the plane to China with his teammates and Saul. But not before he goes home to see Connie (Ali Ahn), his “cousin” (though not actually a blood relative) and, to a certain limited extent, mentor. We learn that the funeral Manford attended was his mother’s, and that she was an avid basketball fan, deeply supportive of her son’s love of the game.
We also go back to 1971, when Saul went to Beijing for the first time. He’s eighteen years younger, and costume designer Tilly Grimes dresses him in a Nehru jacket, a sign of the times and the dramedy’s sense of humor. His hair is black, and his facial hair looks like it was affixed with Elmer’s glue. Hard to know what Grimes has in mind tonsorially speaking. The jacket is a funny reflection of a genuine fashion trend; the hair is (not very) funny phony.
The nature of Saul’s role on this trip is also a little confusing. He’s clearly coaching the Chinese players, yet he calls his return in 1989, coaching USF, a “rematch.” How is it a rematch if he’s on the other side?
Wen Chang (BD Wong), speaking to the audience, notes the inconsistency in Saul’s rematch hype. Wen’s roles are clearly defined. In 1971, he’s an interpreter, while in 1989 he’s the Chinese coach. As adroitly played by Wong, he’s the perfect apparatchik unquestioningly following all the party’s mandates.
In 1989, the Tiananmen Square protests are in high gear, and Manford, ever the rebel, gets caught on camera in the middle of the fray. Wen officially bans him from the game, which is not to say he doesn’t play.
For the most part, The Great Leap is a story well told. Three-dimensional characters, albeit with single defining traits, interact in ways that are sometimes very funny and consistently entertaining. The play’s surprise ending is a stretch. It’s set up well – enough information for you to see it coming; not so much as to be obvious – but the surprise itself seems contrived. Still, it provides insight into both Manford and Wen, who each obtain their own insight into themselves and each other.
Photos: Ahron R. Foster
Through Sunday, June 24th at Atlantic Theater Company’s Stage 2 (330 West 16th Street). www.atlantictheater.org. 2 hours, with an intermission.