Review: Basketball Meets Tiananmen Square in ‘The Great Leap’

Posted June 4, 2018 11:15 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — Bearing the weight of a humongous nation’s conflicted identity on your shoulders is surely no easy task for an actor. Yet a graceful BD Wong manages it with barely a stoop of self-consciousness in “The Great Leap,” Lauren Yee’s global-vision variation on a by-the-numbers sports soap opera.

Wong portrays Wen Chang, a Beijing university basketball coach of the 1970s and ‘80s, in this congested tale of two countries, which opened on Monday night at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Stage II. Wen Chang’s job has given him unexpected material comforts and, more distressing, a visibility he never asked nor hoped for.

A rehabilitated product of the Cultural Revolution, Wen Chang explains that “growing up, you did not want to be someone”: “You wanted to be the person three people behind someone. Because being someone could get you killed.”

And while Wong has stage presence to burn, his Wen Chang conveys what might be called a radiant invisibility throughout this four-character comic drama, directed by Taibi Magar. That is a useful trait for someone who turns out to have a much more dangerously storied past than he lets on.

Playing a charismatic Chinese national with a really big secret was what first brought Wong fame (not to mention a Tony Award), when he portrayed the title role in David Henry Hwang’s “M. Butterfly” 30 years ago. Audiences who know him largely for keeping a straight face as a medical theory-quoting forensic psychiatrist on “Law & Order: SVU” may well want to take this chance to see how artfully he still commands a stage.

Yee (“The Hatmaker’s Wife,” “King of the Yees”) has written a part for him that combines thoughtful research and an imaginative empathy for the Chinese generation that grew up in the stunting shadow of Mao Zedong. “The Great Leap” is at its most affecting when Wen Chang simply tells — or avoids telling — his own story, with a restrained wistfulness for chances lost that bring to mind the self-betraying monologists of Alan Bennett’s “Talking Heads” series.

The ways in which this life is linked to the others in the play tax credibility, though. Yee connects generation-and-nation-spanning dots with a labored hand. At the plot’s center is a 1989 exhibition basketball game between college teams from Beijing and San Francisco, which reunites their respective coaches, Wen Chang and his American counterpart, Saul (Ned Eisenberg, feisty and foul-mouthed, of course).

A stereotypical tough-love coach, Saul had gone to Beijing 18 years earlier to advise the then-neophyte Wen Chang on coaching. Now Saul, whose job is in jeopardy, is returning to China to see what his former mentee has become and, he assumes, to beat the pants off the boys of Beijing. (Takeshi Kata’s basketball-court set, fluidly accented by David Bengali’s projections, functions as an all-purpose international arena.)

Saul’s secret weapon is Manford (a tirelessly revved-up Tony Aidan Vo), a Chinese-American high school student and basketball prodigy who has talked his way into participating. Manford, it turns out, has ulterior motives for going to Beijing, known only to his foster cousin, Connie (Ali Ahn).

What makes Manford run is revealed by teasing degrees, though you’re likely to figure it out long before the last foul shot. The knottiness of his motives is further snarled by the timing of the exhibition match, which takes place at the height of the Tiananmen Square student protests. Private grievances and public discord come together in a down-to-the-wire tiebreaker as millions watch on television throughout the world.

As you may have gathered, “The Great Leap” — as befits a play whose title refers both to modern Chinese history and athletic prowess — ambitiously straddles several well-worn narrative forms, and not without strain. The play is replete with the clichés of sports underdog nail-biters, angry-young-teen stories and roads-not-taken dramas of middle-age regret.

But Magar, who has shone as a director of genre-bending works like “Is God Is” and “Underground Railroad Game,” keeps the more conventional machinery of “The Great Leap” moving at a well-oiled pace. And the performances are smooth and credible, even when the plot is not.

This is a show, after all, that brazenly concludes its first act by having Saul, who is about to leave for Beijing with his team, ask, “It’s China, four days, what could happen?” That’s one of those hoary questions that can be relied on to open the floodgates for a tidal wave of mishaps, misunderstandings and collisions. In that regard, “The Great Leap” does not disappoint.

Production Notes:

‘The Great Leap’

Through June 24 at Atlantic Stage 2, Manhattan; 866-811-4111, atlantictheater.org. Running time: 2 hours.

By Lauren Yee; directed by Taibi Magar; sets by Takeshi Kata; costumes by Tilly Grimes; lighting by Eric Southern; sound and original compositions by Broken Chord; projections by David Bengali; movement by Jesse Perez; production stage manager, Laura Smith. Presented by the Atlantic Theater Company, Neil Pepe, artistic director, Jeffory Lawson, managing director.

Cast: Ali Ahn (Connie), Ned Eisenberg (Saul), Tony Aidan Vo (Manford) and BD Wong (Wen Chang).