Lauren Yee’s smart, feisty, highly enjoyable new play The Great Leap — currently having its New York premiere at Atlantic Theater Company under the high-energy direction of Taibi Magar — is the kind of show where everything comes back around. “This is a play about basketball,” her stage directions tell us, “But it is also a basketball play. The game is reflected not just in the subject matter but the rhythm, structure, language, and how the characters move through space.” It’s one thing for a playwright to append such a note to her script, and another for a production to carry it out. Here in Magar’s swift, punchy staging, anchored by four excellent performances, we feel the kind of up-and-down-the-court rush Yee is striving for. She’s got a sure hand for construction: This isn’t a sprawling, loose-ends-left-dangling kind of play. Even bits of dialogue that feel offhanded — an early reference to A Tale of Two Cities, a mention of a newspaper’s obituary section — will be knitted cleverly back into the story’s main thread.
That thread shuttles dexterously between the familial and the political. Yee has crafted a moving fiction around pieces of real history — her own and that of China in the years after the Cultural Revolution, leading up to the protests in Tiananmen Square that turned deadly on this very night in 1989. Yee’s no stranger to mining her family for material: Her father Larry is already at the center of her play King of the Yees, and he’s also a significant part of the inspiration for The Great Leap. Talking to TDF, Yee recalls her father’s youthful fame as a street-ball player in San Francisco’s Chinatown. A six-foot-one powerhouse nicknamed “Spider” and armed with a legendary reverse jump shot, Larry Yee was, according to his daughter, a “scrappy, masculine, cocky young man who [was] like, ‘I am dominant over the whole court — I can take over the world!’” With a few alterations in the lyrics, Hamilton’s “My Shot” could belong to him.
Or to Manford, the 17-year-old whirlwind at the heart of The Great Leap. “I will win you games! I will score you points!” Manford insists at the play’s beginning to Saul Slezak, the skeptical coach at the University of San Francisco. “I am quick, I am relentless. I am the most relentless person you have ever met and if you have met someone more relentless than me, tell me, tell me and I will meet them and I will find a way to become even more relentless than them!” It’s a great character introduction, heightened into hilarity by the fact that Manford is reading off of note cards he’s prepared for himself, with all the desperately earnest intensity and stabby hand gestures of a teenage freestyle rapper. Yee has a gift for good-natured comedy, for making her characters figures of fun but never of ridicule, and Tony Aidan Vo fills Manford with audacious, fast-talking vitality. He positively quivers with energy and drive — stillness and dynamism become key symbols in Yee’s play, and Vo is never still — but unlike for Larry the “Spider,” his height is an issue. “I’m a point guard. We aren’t supposed to be tall!” he protests to Saul, to which the jaded coach snaps back, “You’re not supposed to be midgets either.”
Like Manford, The Great Leap frequently hops back and forth, toggling between 1971 and the summer of 1989. Eighteen years — the uppermost length of a basketball career (“You’re lucky if you hit 36 and you can still run down the court without blowing your knees out,” Saul tells us in a voice-over at the show’s beginning) and the traditional age of adulthood, the time it takes a boy to become a man. David Bengali fills Takeshi Kata’s clean, effective basketball-court set with grainy, evocative projections of old photos: There’s a newspaper clipping from 1971, a handshake on a Beijing basketball court between an American coach and a Chinese interpreter. The coach is Saul. The interpreter is Wen Chang, a diligent young man with excellent English, assigned by Communist Party officials to interpret for Saul on his trip to Beijing, where he’s helping them to train their newly assembled basketball team.
The unlikely camaraderie formed between Saul and Wen Chang, who will himself become the Beijing team’s coach upon the American’s departure, is another smart play in The Great Leap’s game. Their meeting sets the stage for the play’s main action — a return trip by Saul and his USF team to Beijing in 1989 for a friendly “rematch” — and creates a showcase for two perfectly pitched performances by Ned Eisenberg and the seemingly ageless B.D. Wong. Eisenberg is a riot as the Bronx-born, washed-up, shit-talking American coach, the kind of man who opens team pep talks with “All right, you masturbating horsefuckers,” and, when his team travels to China, cracks himself up by giving them a list of rules and regulations that he refers to as “Some Mao Ze Don’ts, if you will!” (Costume designer Tilly Grimes’s 1970s short shorts, ’80s-tastic tracksuits, and very funny quick-changing wigs give him a boost too.) And as Wen Chang, Wong is making vivid, compelling work of a character that’s got to serve a host of complex functions: He’s the play’s narrator, a psychological and physical foil for the irrepressible young Manford, and ultimately he undergoes The Great Leap’s longest emotional journey, emerging in its final scenes as the story’s unassuming heart.
He’s also funny, and this is important. Wen Chang might be an obedient party member, a “no one” who’s been “standing still his whole life,” but Yee doesn’t saddle him with the burden of humorlessness or, worse, Zen stoicism. We’re used to seeing stories written by Westerners in which East Asians are mystical, affectless, steel-backboned souls, whereas Yee (who is Chinese-American) creates a character with wit and depth, whose own arc of self-recognition helps dig into the sociopolitical whys and wherefores behind this reserved stereotype. “Growing up, you did not want to be someone,” Wen Chang tells us. “You wanted to be the person three people behind someone, because being someone could get you killed.” Wong’s character came of age in a country and a time when standing out, claiming uniqueness, even taking up space were not only frowned upon but dangerous. In 1971, the blustery, manspreading Saul is baffled by his politeness, and that of the newly recruited Beijing basketball players. “It is not my turn,” Wen Chang explains, when Saul berates him for not attacking after an opponent’s free throw. “It is always your turn, every time you are on that court!” shouts Saul, and Wen Chang turns to us with raised eyebrows: “Such an American way of thinking!” he marvels, “I had been waiting for things my whole life.”
Wong has a wry, easy rapport with the audience, and in a fantastic scene in which Eisenberg’s cocky, pushy Saul tries to get him to talk about his sex life, he’s downright hilarious. He’s also got stern pathos at his command in a climactic encounter with Manford. It turns out the boy has reasons other than basketball for wanting to join Saul’s USF team on their trip to Beijing, and though it doesn’t take a master detective to deduce the relationship between the respectable Chinese coach and the tenacious young point-guard, watching the two fine actors battle it out is still plenty rewarding.
If anyone is left a bit on the bench in The Great Leap, it’s Manford’s cousin Connie — or, rather, his self-appointed cousin: “We’re not actually related,” she tells Saul. “My dad’s the super in our building. Manford’s mom worked nights as a security guard, so we’d have him over for dinner. Chinese people’re weird like that.” Connie is the closest thing to family that Manford has, and Ali Ahn makes the practical 25-year-old post-grad into an appealing presence — a kindhearted big-sister figure, but also a sharp intellect who draws Manford’s attention, and ours, to the realities of “everything that’s going on over there” in Beijing in 1989. Her role takes a backseat to those of the three men — while the play belongs to Manford and Wen Chang, Saul also gets an emotional backstory and arc that outranks Connie’s — but both Yee and Magar are successful in weaving her into the play’s climax: an evocation of the big game in Beijing that’s being played just as the tanks start rolling into Tiananmen Square.
Plays about athletic prowess can present the same kind of difficulties as plays about great performers. A director has to find some way to convey a kind of brilliance — physical or artistic — that an actor, no matter how skilled, may not have. (I always cringe at the end of Rent when Roger plays his “one great song”: I don’t buy its genius, or its powers of resurrection.) In The Great Leap, Magar and her movement director Jesse Perez have crafted an overall tempo and physicality for the show that feel appropriately fleet-footed, as well as a climax that braids together stillness, motion, and e-motion to thrilling effect. Eric Southern’s well-scored lights assist the cast’s four actors as they stand in a line across the stage, feeding our own feelings of breathlessness back to us. They don’t illustrate the game — rather, they help us imagine its stakes, its dangers, its magic.
During the denouement of The Great Leap, another grainy photograph, this one iconic, fills the set’s back wall. In her play’s final moments, as she weaves the fates of her characters together with the story of this famous image, Yee veers a little too close to Forrest Gump territory for me. But it’s a credit to the play as a whole that this gesture, even in its tidy sentimentality, feels earned. If The Great Leap is a touch Hollywood-ish in its narrative neatness, it’s still an exhilarating, deeply satisfying piece of work, powered by gutsy performances and full of bright, inquisitive, humorous life.
The Great Leap is at the Atlantic Theater Company through June 24.