Atlantic Stage 2
330 West 16th St. between Eighth & Ninth Aves.
Through June 24, $61.50-$71.50
Sports and politics are inextricably linked, from Olympic boycotts to government-sponsored doping to NFL players taking a knee during the national anthem. Lauren Yee brings them together again in the overstuffed, convoluted two-act play The Great Leap, which opened tonight at the Atlantic’s small, intimate Stage 2 theater. The work is inspired by the real-life story of her father, Larry, who was born in San Francisco to Chinese immigrants and became a local basketball legend, ultimately traveling to Beijing to play for America in a “friendship game” against China in 1981. The Great Leap builds a strange culturopolitical fantasy around that already incredible tale, moving between 1971, during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, when University of San Francisco assistant basketball coach Saul Slezac (Ned Eisenberg) is invited by Chinese leadership to come to Beijing and teach their players the US version of the game, working with low-level official Wen Chang (BD Wong), and 1989, during the Tiananmen Square uprising, when Saul, now the USF coach, is preparing to take his team to China for a rematch with Chang’s team. Chang is no longer a low-level official, however, and he has been playing a very patient game indeed getting ready for this particular “friendly” match.
Back in San Francisco, Chinese-American high school student Manford Lum (Tony Aidan Vo), a short, obnoxious, smart-mouthed Chinatown street player, is determined to get on Saul’s team and play in China. He aggressively harasses the Bronx-born, politically incorrect Saul, who says, “Why would I ‘see what you can do’ when you’ve just shown me what an inconsiderate sonofabitch you are?” Meanwhile, Manford’s cousin Connie (Ali Ahn) wants him to finish high school instead of heading off to China. Of course, he goes to Beijing, where he, Saul, and Chang all learn things about themselves and their place in the world before, during, and after the big game.
Basketball is a team sport in which everyone has to do their part in order to be victorious. Even the best players are going to have difficulty winning if the game plan is off-kilter, and that’s what happens here. Yee and director Taibi Magar (Master, Is God Is) have constructed the narrative on a house of cards that just can’t stay up, an alley-oop that gets rejected. The likelihood of a short high school student joining a college team traveling to China is far from a slam dunk; even less likely is that the Chinese would allow an American team to come to Beijing in the midst of violent protests. In fact, a Chinese team flew to the US in 1985 to participate in a Friendship Tour, and in 2011 the Georgetown Hoyas went to Beijing to take on the Bayi Rockets; the fight that broke out during that game is evoked in Yee’s play.
The Great Leap takes place in a gym with a parquet floor, basketball markings, and three sets of doors from which the characters enter and leave. (The cool scenic design is by Takeshi Kata.) Projections by David Bengali identify the time and location and include archival footage of the Tiananmen Square protests. Tony winner and two-time Emmy nominee Wong (M. Butterfly, Mr. Robot) is sure and steady as the calm and thoughtful Chang, while Eisenberg (Six Degrees of Separation, Golden Boy) portrays the blustery, foulmouthed Saul with an almost too-natural ease. The show works best when it’s just the two of them onstage. Ahn (The Heidi Chronicles, Sugar House) isn’t really given enough to do, like the ninth or tenth player on the bench, while Vo (SeaWife, NoNo Boy) is on a perpetual fast break, a ball hog who never slows down to take a breath and never changes the frowning expression on his face. It’s actually exhausting to watch him. The ending sums up a lot of what is wrong with the production; it’s a stunning image, but it just makes no sense, stretching the bounds of credulity even if merely symbolic.
Yee (The Hatmaker’s Wife, Cambodian Rock Band) won the Kesselring Prize from the National Arts Club for The Great Leap, an award that “honors and supports playwrights on the brink of national recognition.” (The very prestigious jury consisted of John Guare, Anne Cattaneo, and Lynn Nottage; David Henry Hwang presented the award to her.) The Great Leap might not make the playoffs, but looking forward, there’s always next season.