The Great Leap by Lauren Yee
At Atlantic Theatre Company 2nd Stage, West 16th Street
BSonArts rating: A-
Show-Score rating: 90
Lauren Yee’s “The Great Leap,” at the Atlantic Theater Company’s 2nd Stage, has its own imaginative leaps to overcome. A 17-year-old Chinese-American high school basketball player forces his way into the lineup for the University of San Francisco’s goodwill challenge to the University of Beijing’s team in the capital city. The big game coincides with the peak of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. And, as the personal story of the short but determined dribbler unfolds, the audience is usually one-step ahead of the plot. In short, the plot is quite predictable.
But Ms. Yee handles the development of the plot and characters with so much aplomb that the audience is more than happy to take those leaps with her. There is humor throughout, even in the tensest scenes. The American basketball coach is a classic crass Brooklynite who is initially responsible for teaching the Chinese coach the ins and outs of the game. Much of the humor involves the Asian’s efforts to understand American slang and basketball terminology, but Ms. Yee’s style is never condescending; it’s always about communication. Similarly, the American coach transplanted to San Francisco has a tough time communicating with the teenage star player from Chinatown.
The play’s most interesting element is the complex pressures and historical legacy that haunt the Chinese coach who survived the brutality of the cultural revolution. The play has one of the finest Asian-American actors in that role. B.D. Wong is wonderful as the would-be Chinese basketball coach, showing as much of the character’s tensions in his body language as in the dialogue. Ned Eisenberg, opposite him as the Brooklyn bomber, fully embodies the fowl-mouthed coach whose back story is not unlike the ambitions of the young Chinese-American upstart.
At the center of the show is a knock-out (and exhausting) performance by Tony Aidan Vo as a 17-year-old high school dribbler who forces himself onto a college team to play the “good-will” game with the Beijing University team. The American and Chinese coaches meet again 17 years after their initial encounters. While the turns in the story are frequently predictable, Ms. Yee’s writing is so crisp and dimensioned that we just go with its flow. The direction by Taibi Magar strikes a balance between the humor (and there’s lots of it) and the unraveling of the characters’ stories at an energized pace.
The Atlantic 2nd Stage is turned into a basketball court by designer Takeshi Kata. Projections by David Bengali effectively set the tone and remind us of events as the play jumps between 1971 in China and 1989 in San Francisco and Beijing.