Theater review by Helen Shaw
I don’t know much about basketball, but I do know this: A single world-beating player can elevate a team, and two can mean the championship. In Lauren Yee’s historical drama The Great Leap, the University of San Francisco’s 1989 basketball team is headed to China to play a friendship game with Beijing University. Point guard Manford (a wildly overselling Tony Aidan Vo) is desperate to join them, but he’s a short high-schooler from Chinatown—it’ll take some fast talking to convince coach Saul (Ned Eisenberg) to let him go. Saul claims to have brought basketball to Beijing 18 years ago, and we spend nearly half the play in 1971, when sweet-natured, culturally blockheaded Saul bullies his translator Wen Chang (BD Wong) into becoming a coach. There’s some solid mistranslation humor (Saul: “You fuck their shit up!” Wen Chang, scribbling in his notebook: “You want them to copulate on their feces?”), but the play is mainly concerned with the ways in which history can be forgotten. Wen Chang speaks directly to the audience; he reminds us of the hellish Cultural Revolution, corrects Saul’s wild inaccuracies and, as the coaches square up for their rematch, guides our attention to the crisis building in Tiananmen Square.
The Great Leap can feel hasty and overstuffed; there’s a whole prestige-TV season’s worth of big reveals crammed into her two hours. Yee's writing for Manford and his cousin Connie (Ali Ahn, doing very nice work) shows its expository effort, and her last-minute repurposing of real-world heroism is unintentionally offensive. Yet there’s a lot to applaud here. Yee knows how to make her characters seem like real people—even a stock type like Bronx-born smack-talker Saul has dimension and complexity—and Taibi Magar’s precise production has visual flair, from Tilly Grimes’s pitch-perfect costumes to David Bengali’s gorgeously executed projections. More important, it has Wong and Eisenberg playing at the peak of their game. Eisenberg finds subtle gradations inside a broad character, and Wong is a superstar for a reason. He barely moves onstage; a wild gesture for Wen Chang is ruefully suppressing a smile. Yet his performance spins, pivots and flies off the ground. Even as Wong stands stock-still, he shows us poetry in motion.
Atlantic Stage 2 (Off Broadway). By Lauren Yee. Directed by Taibi Magar. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs. One intermission.