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The Great Leap

Theatre Review by David Hurst - June 4, 2018

Tony Aidan Vo
Photo by Ahron R Foster

After its well-received world premiere in February at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, followed immediately by a run in March with the same cast and design team at Seattle Repertory Theatre, Lauren Yee's The Great Leap is now having its New York debut with a new cast and design team at The Atlantic Theater Company's Stage 2 space. Winner of the Edgerton Foundation New Play Award, The Great Leap is an unlikely drama about a Chinese-American high school basketball star whose real-life family drama plays out in Beijing against the backdrop of the Tiananmen Square massacre in June 1989. It's a story about chasing impossible dreams in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.

A sport's play written by a woman, Yee, and directed by a woman, Taibi Magar, The Great Leap is surely as unexpected as it is tantalizing. Inspired by her father's real-life story of basketball stardom on the hardscrabble courts of San Francisco's Chinatown and his trip to China in the 1980's with a team of American athletes who played 'exhibition' matches against the Chinese, Yee's protagonist is high school senior Manford Lum, played with unabashed energy and charisma by an intense Tony Aidan Vo. It's 1989 and, following a death in his family, Manford is adrift until he sees an item in the Chronicle's obituaries about the University of San Francisco's men's basketball team, coached by Saul Slezac (Ned Eisenberg, terrific), going to Beijing for a rematch against the Chinese team, coached by Wen Chang (B.D. Wong, also terrific). Manford tracks down Saul and begs him to let him join the team, unaware that 18 years earlier Saul had been a mentor to Wen Chang, then a translator and neophyte coach. Saul comes to learn Manford has serious skills as a point-guard and begrudgingly allows him a spot on the team after getting the okay from Manford's "cousin" Connie (the wonderful Ali Ahn), who's actually not his cousin but the daughter of the superintendent at Manford's apartment building. Connie's family has essentially adopted Manford and she's protective of him while at the same time his biggest fan.

As the play toggles back and forth between Saul and Wen Chang's initial meeting in Beijing in 1971 and Manford's struggles in San Francisco in 1989, Yee draws some interesting parallels between sports and politics even though she's guilty of falling back on clumsy contrivances to advance her plotting. Would Saul really be able to put Manford, a high school senior who hadn't yet graduated, on a collegiate team going on a trip to China when he wasn't a student at the university? And once in China, where the government is watching and listening to the USF's team's every move, could Manford really slip away from the team and get to Tiananmen Square without being noticed, not to mention breaking into Wen Chang's government apartment for a confrontation for which Manford's been waiting his entire life? Considering how many productions and workshops Yee's play has had it's surprising these glaring problems haven't been addressed.

The other unspoken problem with The Great Leap is it's a play about basketball but no basketball is being played despite the authentic looking basketball court flooring courtesy of scenic designer Takeshi Kata. The absence of actual basketball playing isn't necessarily a problem—until it is. Director Magar keeps the action moving and her superb cast in motion (much like an actual basketball game), but the stage in the Atlantic 2 space feels cramped for this production and can't contain Vo's intensity as Manford, whose full throttle performance would benefit from ratcheting the angst down a couple of notches. Eric Southern's lighting and David Bengali's projections add considerably to the proceedings, especially Bengali's work in the heartbreaking—and unexpected—conclusion of The Great Leap. Despite its flaws, it's gratifying to see an innovative play hold up a mirror to sports and finds politics and our shared humanity reflected back.

The Great Leap
Through June 24
Atlantic Stage 2, 330 West 16th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix