Sometimes the most compelling drama in sports does not happen on the court or field, but behind the scenes. In The Great Leap, a play by Lauren Yee that opened in its Los Angeles premiere this weekend at the Pasadena Playhouse, in association with the East West Players, basketball serves as an entry point into an ambitious story about familial, cultural, and political conflict.
Directed by BD Wong, who has starred in two previous productions of the play, the action jumps between 1971 and 1989. In 1971, Saul (James Eckhouse), an American basketball coach at a San Francisco college, travels to Beijing to advise Wen Chang (Grant Chang) on the basics of the game. Wen Chang is fascinated by the more aggressive, individualistic American style of play, and they eventually overcome cultural differences and a language barrier to reach an understanding. Flash forward to 1989, when a more weathered Saul meets Manford (Justin Chien), a Chinese-American player who begs to join the college team ahead of an upcoming exhibition game in Beijing. Saul, who has over the years lost his sense of self and purpose in both sports and his personal life, is at first exasperated by Manford’s persistence, but is unable to deny his talent and welcomes him to the team as point guard. The cast is rounded out by Connie (Christine Lin), Manford’s “cousin” by choice, not blood, who has taken to looking after him since the death of his mother.
It might be only an exhibition game, but the stakes are very real for these characters. Saul wants to win to prove that devoting his life to basketball at the expense of his family was the right decision. Wen Chang, a man who has lived a very disciplined life of devotion to the Communist party, including the last 18 years in the same simple apartment, is no longer sure where he fits in as the political landscape in China changes. And Manford, it turns out, has a much more personal connection to all of this than is immediately apparent. It all takes place against the backdrop of the Democracy Movement in China, which culminates in the Tiananmen Square protests that occur at the same time as the climactic basketball game.
This is an interesting setting for a play, and even the double entendre of the title alone is clever—The Great Leap Forward was a deadly campaign made by the Communist Party of China that created the world as Wen Chang has known it, and the sport of basketball involves plenty of a different sort of leaping. But this is where there seems to be a disconnect—for a play that rotates around a fast-paced, exciting sport, this staging is rather stagnant and uninspired. Actors spend long stretches of time facing downstage to deliver their lines, and aside from a few scene transitions involving some dribbling, it is rare that an actual basketball makes an appearance. Obviously, it would be impossible to reenact the athleticism of a real game onstage, particularly with a cast of four, but the story would benefit from a bit more dynamic movement. The closest it gets is during the climactic game. There is not much of a set and a great deal is left up to the audience’s imagination, and in a larger space like the Playhouse with a lot of creative potential, you cannot help but wonder if there was a better way to bring the action to life.
The political storyline is more compelling than the personal. The big reveal is a bit predictable and melodramatic, despite the very best efforts of the talented cast. Chang is the clear standout, bringing humanity and humor to the most interesting character in the play. Wen Chang has lived his entire life under a communist regime. He knows how to follow rules, and has no idea who he would be without them. Much like Saul, he has also made some huge decisions in his life with a singleminded focus and now must face the possibility that maybe it was not the right one.
It is possible that this ambitious story Yee is trying to tell, one that spans generations and continents and decades, is simply too complicated for such a small cast. Her writing shines brightest in simple two-hander scenes, such as the first meeting between Saul and Wen Chang, during which Wen Chang hilariously attempts to translate Saul’s copious foul-mouthed expressions. In the final scene, she makes a bold, for lack of a better word, leap in trying to historically contextualize the story we have just watched unfold, and it is such a big swing that it detracts from the more intimate aspects of the piece that work better. Ultimately, the script and the production seem at odds, with neither able to properly service the other, resulting in a well-intentioned attempt that cannot quite score.
The Great Leap runs at the Pasadena Playhouse in association with the East West Players through December 1st. The running time is 2 hours, including one intermission. Tickets start at $25 and can be purchased here.