Lauren Yee’s “The Great Leap” is raucously funny, incredibly profane, not for the kids, thoughtful, and will leave you uncomfortable. The latter is not a bad thing—but you may well have to put aside visceral reactions to sit with and reflect on those reactions.
…these four actors are brilliant in their portrayals.
Yee has taken the 1971 visit by the U.S. Table Tennis Team to play a friendship game with their Chinese counterparts. It is woven it into a new story, still beginning in 1971 and ending in 1989, at the time that Tiananmen Square in Beijing was in the international news. In her imagining of sports diplomacy (aka friendship games, everything is carefully orchestrated), she still hews to the original 1971 plan that helped open diplomacy between the People’s Republic of China and the United States—and a follow-up game in 1989, only it’s basketball. In fact, Yee’s father’s trip to China as a young man to play a basketball game inspired this play.
We meet Saul (Eric Hissom) in 1989—older, coarse, grouchy, and clinging to his basketball coaching career by his fingertips—when he is importuned by Manford (Randy Nguyen Ta), a 17-year-old high school senior who wants to be on the basketball team that Saul is taking to China for a friendship game. Manfred is talented, driven (at least by basketball), aggressive, and has his own reasons for his desperate drive to reach China. He’s also 5’7″ which Saul points out several times in blistering tones. Manfred responds by giving him a rundown of every flaw in his team and in Saul. Seems like a match made in heaven.
Skipping back to 1971, Saul is in China to teach Chinese athletes how to play basketball. He is assigned an interpreter, Wen Chang (Grant Chang), who has been lifted out of a re-education camp because he had the best English in his old life as a university student. Chang, however, is in no way prepared for the profanity-laced and idiomatic English of Saul (he makes typical American assumptions and it never seems to even occur to Saul that he might want to use clearer English). His frantic efforts to translate Saul’s brutal, sexist speech into something the Chinese team might actually be able to follow is simply hysterical. Chang’s and Hissom’s scenes together are the height of screwball comedy, only rated adult-only.
In Act 2, we meet Wen Chang after 18 years. He has moved up in the world while Saul has slid down. Both men’s hold on their respective lives is tenuous, however, and the weight of facing that leads Chang to a momentous decision. He’s no longer the neophyte learning from a westerner, and that alters the relationship between the two coaches. This is also the act that secrets are revealed.
The final character is Connie (a brilliant, dorkily-funny Lois Shih). She is in graduate school and her father and she have taken in Manford since his mother died. Evidently, the two families have known each other for a very long time. Her role is the most grounded. She knows who she is, is confident in that, and wiser than her years. She’s Manford’s stalwart, even if he isn’t entirely aware of it. Her role is the most archetypal in the play.
Jennifer Chang directed a furiously paced, very funny, and yet difficult to stomach at times. “The Great Leap” takes place in 1971 and 1989, so the constant references to sexual acts, the overflowing profanity, the verbal portrayal of women as less than, and the demeaning of women’s minds and bodies is difficult. It’s quite the reminder that men and women live in very different worlds. But Chang uses light-speed pacing and over-the-top—yet still somehow realistic—delivery, to provide texture for the male attitudes.
Scenic designer Tony Cisek has created a deceptively-simple but grand staging, using giant geometric moveable walls that frame the back of the stage. They also serve as screens for projections when needed. The few props are easily rolled in and out by the actors (and occasionally by stage crew) in a stylized, formal, and very fast choreography. The set is spare, allowing the play’s verbal fireworks and the incredible acting of this cast to shine.
Helen G. Huang creates costumes that convey 1971 or 1989 without any fuss. Sound designer Roc Lee amps the excitement at the end of the big game in Act 2 (yes, this play hits the tropes, but upends them with their own absurdity) so well, you could see some of the audience leaning forward. Lighting designer Minjoo Kim saves the big guns for the end—a flash of light so bright it’s like the end of the world. Equally as brief, it is a wordless salute to how fleeting life is.
This is not an easy play. Yee takes a couple of recent historic moments and strips them down to their core, and weaves an adult fable around them, finding a human scale to big events that brings them to emotional life. These four actors are brilliant in their portrayals. This play may be difficult to hear and see at times, but it will elicit a stark awareness that even “big” moments are human moments and human lives. It’s well worth the price of admission.
Running Time: Approximately two hours with a 15-minute intermission.
Show Advisory: For mature audiences—profanity, sexual references.
“The Great Leap” runs through December 5, 2021 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda, MD 20814. For more information and tickets, please call the box office M-F, 11 am-5 pm at 240.644.1100 or go online.