Hana Kim’s hypnotizing projection designs provide color, light and motion every time Lauren Yee’s script comes to a standstill. The Great Leap (at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater through March 31) awkwardly inflates the personal hoop dreams of a 17-year-old boy until they pop against the political backdrop of the Tiananmen Square protests. How Manford’s (Tim Liu) peremptory desire to join the University of San Francisco’s basketball team subsequently lands him in the middle of that uprising is an implausible stretch. In telling his story and that of his coach Saul (Arye Gross), Yee relies on lengthy, expository monologues to communicate what isn’t dramatized on stage.
During one of Manford’s clamorous tryouts for Saul, he comes to the court wearing a dark suit. Saul, who’s been drawn as quaintly crass and vulgar, a Jewish version of Archie Bunker, asks him if he’s just been to a funeral. We don’t find out until the next scene with his cousin Connie (Ruibo Qian) that Manford’s mother has died. He tells Connie, angrily, unconvincingly and without varying his emotions, that he wasn’t close to her. This may have been the actor’s choice or the director’s, to convey Manford’s emotional immaturity this way, but only Connie, a supporting character, lands on stage as a fully formed person who’s more than a collection of tics.
Manford goes on to describe his mother as if she had been a complete stranger, despite having shared an apartment with her for his entire life. After emigrating to the United States, pregnant and alone, she never mastered the English language — and she didn’t encourage her son to learn Chinese. But because we don’t see them interact, to witness their inability to communicate or to embody cross-cultural and generational conflicts, it’s hard to believe Manford’s portrayal of her or their dynamic. When we later find out that his six foot, two inch tall mother was a talented basketball player in her youth, it felt psychologically implausible that her basketball-obsessed son never knew that one crucial bit of information about her, or that she withheld it.
Amongst her possessions though, Manford finds a newspaper clipping from 1971 of Saul and a Chinese apparatchik, Wen Chang (BD Wong), who he rightfully assumes is the father he’s never met. Saul was sent to China as a cultural ambassador to teach the Chinese how Americans play basketball. The first revelatory lesson from Saul is, “It’s always your turn,” which, for Wen Chang, runs counter to the Chinese concept of deference. This could have been the unifying, thematic through line for the characters but it gets lost as the plot drifts, not forward, but sideways.
Yee alternates between depictions of Wen Chang’s background as a Communist party member and reluctant basketball coach, beginning with that moment of cultural exchange between him and Saul, and Manford’s inexorable drive to meet him. As the play moves between that 1971 meeting and 1989, in the weeks leading up to the tragedy at Tiananmen Square, Saul is the link between the estranged father and son. Gross struggles to land Saul’s politically incorrect jokes. The vulgarity wears thin, not because his remarks are offensive, which they are, but because they’re aggressively unfunny and dated. His default setting, in which he shouts four-letter epithets, sounds like a playwright’s attempt to make a character real or authentic — but this approach is a tonal misfire every time Saul opens his mouth. His silly, lopsided Dennis Franz-NYPD Blue wig doesn’t help his case.
In a monologue directed at the audience, Wen Chang reveals that he had to sacrifice his relationship with Manford’s mother. At the time, being a loyal Communist party member came before everything else, including his unborn son. While he’s recounting this story, a woman enters at the back of the stage. We only see her from her waist down to her feet. Kim’s projection screens block the top half of her body. She’s dribbling a basketball. As she moves, turns and jumps, her body also becomes a shadowy, digital figure on the screens in front of her. Manford’s mother is a mythical figure who never comes into focus. She’s the linchpin of this story and she’s been written out of it. You could almost hear her ghostly fists pounding out a message from the sidelines demanding that she too should have her say.
By not fleshing out her character on stage, neither Wen Chang’s muddled regret nor Manford’s adolescent upset resonates, if that’s a response that Yee wanted from the audience. It looks as if they’re motivated, not by an actual person they were involved with or connected to, but by an authorial contrivance. Placing their reunion directly adjacent to the deaths at Tiananmen Square also felt like an artistically convenient use of history, an unnecessary add-on that’s ill-fitting on this particular family. It’s admirable that the playwright wants us to remember what happened in 1989 but the plot is so overdetermined that it nullifies the reason for including Manford and his motivations.
At the end, Yee has Wen Chang perform an act of atonement, replacing his lifelong passivity and fearful compliance with a heroic impulse. As a symbol and stand-in for the Communists in power, he has been a victimizer by default for toeing the party line — only to become a victim himself. Does Manford believe he deserves to be forgiven or thought of in a new light? We never find out. His quest to find his father, and what that means to him, is erased as soon as the lights fade to black on Wen Chang’s silhouette.
The Great Leap, through March 31, at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St. $15-$110; 415-749-2228 or act-sf.org