Cultural clashes converge in A.C.T.’s unique basketball metaphor

[Woody’s Rating: ★★★★☆

With a banner of Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong in the background, Wen Chang (BD Wong) takes notes on the American-style basketball coaching of Saul Slezak (Arye Gross) in “The Great Leap.” Photo by Kevin Berne.

Mind-wander to a climactic 1989.

Mind-wander to a San Francisco basketball team from Chinatown being invited to play a so-called “friendship” exhibition game at Beijing University in a country that shakily squeezed through a Cultural Revolution but is ripe for the Tiananmen Square massacre.

Mind-wander to “The Great Leap,” a sui generis American Conservatory Theater production by gifted 32-year-old Bay Area playwright Lauren Yee that illuminates clashes of cultural identity and generations as well as international politics while hopscotching across continents and an 18-year time span.

BD Wong poses with background image of San Francisco, which is the setting for “The Great Leap.” Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

BD Wong, San Francisco native I first saw starring in “M. Butterfly, for which he won a Tony in his Broadway debut, and then in about a zillion and a half times as a shrink on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” reruns, plays an almost unflappable translator/coach and loyal, invisibility-seeking Communist Party member, Wen Chang, with such nuanced acumen that he earned a standing ovation from the opening night audience.

His mentor (who becomes a rematch foe), the potty-mouthed Saul Slezak (played with delicious comic skill by Arye Gross with such purple phrases as “you masturbating horse-f–kers), is an ideal study in contrast.

But an arrogant, fast-talking 17-year-old ballplayer named Manford (Tim Liu), who can make 99 free throws in a row but can’t find his way out of a political protest, also soaks up the spotlight.

As does a key character never seen on stage, Manford’s 6-foot, 1-inch, basketball-playing mother.

Only Connie (Ruibo Qian), the boy’s protector and ersatz cousin, isn’t fully fleshed out by Yee.

Not incidentally, Wong, who starred in “The Orphan of Zhao” at A.C.T. in 2014, is reprising the role he played off-Broadway last year.

Had you asked me beforehand, I would have insisted it would be impossible for only four actors to effectively represent two basketball teams, two cultures and two countries.

I would have been dead wrong.

A.C.T.’s tragi-comedy, inspired by real events in the life of Yee’s father, who’s also a central figure in her “King of the Yees,” which just completed a run at the San Francisco Playhouse, is smartly directed by two-time Obie Award-winner Lisa Peterson.

She made the two-hour (minus intermission) show move as swift as an eagle in flight despite my occasional difficulty of making out thick Chinese accents or caring about once-in-a-while compressed, excessive and labored dialogue.

So speedy, in fact, that I didn’t realize it when I was nearing its unexpected conclusion.

Yee and Peterson are greatly aided by magnificent lighting effects by Yi Zhao and brilliantly impressionistic projections by Hana S. Kim, as well as serviceable costumes by Meg Neville and a simple but efficient set by Robert Brill.

Highlights include an uproarious, silver-tongued monologue delivered by Wong that uses basketball as a metaphor for a sex act, an incredibly well-choreographed sequence in which Liu plays basketball sans ball or hoop, and multiple perfectly-timed insertions of the Charles Dickens’ phrase “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

“The Great Leap” opens, by the way, with a bunch of hanging lamps hovering over a lone basketball sitting in a spotlight on a stage marked like a court. It’s a striking device — one that readied me for the staged sports/life metaphor that follows.

The play’s title takes its cue from the misfired Great Leap Forward of the People’s Republic of China — but it also symbolizes several plot and character developments.

Despite its minor laws, I give the show four stars (one short of the number in the Red Chinese flag).

“The Great Leap” will play at the American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco, through March 31. Night performances, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; matinees, 2 p.m. Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets: $15 to $110. Information: (415) 749-2228 or www.act-sf.org.

Contact Woody Weingarten at www.vitalitypress.com/or voodee@sbcglobal.net.

About the Author

Woody WeingartenWoody Weingarten, who can be reached at www.vitalitypress.com/ or voodee@sbcglobal.net, can’t remember when he couldn’t talk — or play with words. His first poem was published in high school but when his hormones announced the arrival of adulthood, he figured he’d rather eat than rhyme. So he switched to journalism. And whadda ya know, the bearded, bespectacled fella has used big, small and hyphenated words professionally since jumpstarting his career in New Yawk City more than 60 years ago. Today the author of the book “Rollercoaster: How a man can survive his partner’s breast cancer” is also a reviewer-critic, blogger and publisher — despite allegedly being retired. During his better-paid years as a wage slave he was an executive editor and writer for daily and weekly publications in California, Florida, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York. He won writing awards for public service and investigation, features, columns, editorials and news. Woody also has published weekly and monthly newspapers, and written a national column for “Audio” magazine. A graduate of Colgate University, he owned a public relations/ad agency and managed an advertising publication. The father of two and grandfather of three, he and his wife, Nancy Fox, have lived in San Anselmo in Marin County for three decades. He figures they'll stay.View all posts by Woody Weingarten →