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A CurtainUp Review
The Great Leap
At 6'3", with point guard height but not, sadly, leaping ability to match, I've always enjoyed basketball. So I went into this production looking for a sort of nostalgic story of basketball in the 80s, tied together with an exploration of Chinese-American culture. What I got instead was far more important: a moving, thoughtful story about parents, children, friendship, and love.
The Great Leap follows the story of Manford (Tony Aidan Vo), a Chinese-American high school senior in San Francisco in 1989, right during the time of the protests in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. Manford desperately wants to be on the American team going to compete against the Beijing University basketball team in what is optimistically called a "friendship game." His problem is twofold: first, he's not out of high school yet, and second, Coach Saul (Ned Eisenberg) has enough problems without trusting a cocky kid with an attitude who claims to be the "best in Chinatown." But Manford persists, and eventually Saul relents—less because of his desire to help Manford and more because Manford really is good, and Saul, whose college team has been struggling badly, desperately needs a signature win on his resume.
It's not clear to either Saul or the audience why Manford needs to go to this game as much as he says he does. But, as the play unfolds, revealing the inner motivations of all the characters, the answer is startling.
Under Taibi Magar's careful direction, that unfolding is both engaging and effective. Connie (Ali Ahn), Manford's cousin and a graduate student, has studied in China and is concerned about the political situation there. She is just as concerned about Manford, who is hot-headed and impulsive.
For his part, Saul has other reasons to be anxious about the trip to Beijing. The man who served as his translator when he visited in 1971, Wen Chang (B.D. Wong), whom Saul recommended for coach of Beijing University when he left, is still the coach eighteen years later — and Saul recognizes the implicit threat to his own stature. For Chang's part, the Communist Party, determined to get a public relations victory at all costs, is pressuring Chang to make sure his team wins. . .and so the dangers are coming from all sides.
It's a well-constructed plot in a well-conceived play. But the production really works because of its characters and the exceptional acting which brings them to life.
Ahn and Vo are both solid performers (though I wished Manford wasn't quite so one-note-rebellious as Vo often makes him). As usual, Eisenberg is excellent as Saul, swearing and gesticulating through the part with gusto (side note: this play is definitively not for children).
But the unquestioned star of the show is Wong, who invests Wen Chang with a veneer of thoughtfulness and reserve trembling over a deeply emotional core. What makes this performance so brilliant is that Wong never gives in to the temptation to let the reserve break. Even his deeply felt moments of grief are held at arm's length, covered by a quiet laugh which conceals an emotional ocean. When Wong acknowledges another character's claim that he has been "standing still" his whole life with the line "That is correct," his expression of calm anguish is devastating. Wong's performance is world-class.
Not everything works perfectly. For a "basketball play," there are a few odd times, especially in the second half, where the production seems curiously static. But these missteps are few and far between. For the most part, Yee's play is compelling and powerful, with performances (especially Wong's) to match. If you like basketball, cultural history, or compelling theater, The Great Leap is well worth your time.
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The Great Leap
Playwright: Lauren Yee
Directed by Taibi Magar
Cast: Ali Ahn (Connie), Ned Eisenberg (Saul), Tony Aidan Vo (Manford), B.D. Wong (Wen Chang)
Scenic Design: Takeshi Kata
Costume Design: Tilly Grimes
Lighting Design: Eric Southern
Sound and Original Compositions: Broken Chord
Running time: One hour, fifty minutes including a ten minute intermission
Atlantic Stage 2, 330 West 16th St., (212) 691-5919
From 5/23/18 to 6/24/18; opening 6/4/18
Tues. - Sat. @ 7:30 p.m., Sat.- Sun. @ 2:30 p.m., Sun. (5/27, 6/10, 6/17) @ 7:30 p.m.
Tickets: $61.50 regular, $71.50 premium
Reviewed by Dr. Gregory A. Wilson based on June 3rd press performance
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