Courtesy Cleveland Play House
Many playwrights want to begin their work with a scene that sizzles, that grabs the audience so their attention is fully secured for what's to come. But sometimes, that glorious first scene is so good the rest of the play pales in comparison, and that's not so good.
In "The Great Leap" by Lauren Yee, now at Cleveland Play House, the first scene between the white basketball coach Saul and the young Chinese hoop dreamer Manford fairly crackles with energy. It is 1989 and Manford is a recent high school grad who was the star point guard of his team even at his diminutive height. And he wants to join the team Saul is taking to Beijing for a "friendship game" with Chinese nationals.
Manford is bursting with energy as he cajoles, needles and even insults Saul in an attempt to win a starting role on the team which leaves the next day. Yes, the next day. For anyone with even a basic understanding of basketball, it's clear that this can't possibly happen given the intricacies of the team sport. So, it's a clear indication that TGL is actually not dealing in reality; it's a fairytale.
Unfortunately, there are no other signs that this is a fairytale, since it's played on scenic designer Yu Shibagaki's half-court set that is realistic down to the spot-on backboards, hoops, and lines painted on the polished wood floor. Hell, the Cavs would play on this court in a heartbeat. Because of these mixed signals, the rest of Yee's script suffers from an excess of too many happy coincidences for a realistic play, and too few flights of fancy for a fairytale.
That said, the four-person cast under the direction of Esther Jun is fully involved and spirited as the plot unrolls. Of course, Manford makes the team, and we learn in a flashback that this isn't Saul's first trip to China. Eighteen years before, he went there to help their new and clueless basketball coach Wen Chang learn the ins and outs of hoops. This results in a culture clash that, predictably, leads to some amusing confusion. When potty-mouthed Saul says about the attitude of a winning team, "You want to fuck up their shit," Wen Chang's shocked response is, "You mean you want to copulate on their feces?" Rimshot.
In the ensuing years, Wen has learned a lot, about English colloquialisms and basketball, so when Saul and Manford arrive with their team, they are confronted with a hardass Wen who gives Saul an ultimatum that puts him and the Americans in a pickle. Playwright Yee also weaves in the backstory of Saul's unstable job status (his team finished 8 and 20 the previous year). There are other complicating factors, some introduced by Manford's "cousin" Connie, including familial secrets, references to the Chinese government's Great Leap Forward economic disaster, and a couple concluding coincidences that are so enormous they almost tip the whole piece into parody.
Somehow, the cast handles all this with professional panache, starting with David Mason as loud and coarse Saul who still has a soft spot for Manford, played with fierce focus by Eric Cheung. As Wen Chang, Reuben Uy is totally believable in a play that is anything but, and Amanda Kuo turns in a warm, protective Connie.
Aside from the glaring inconsistencies in the script, and the sad fake sideburns that are stuck on Saul to indicate the time shift, these performances are remarkably affecting. You just wish they were surrounded with a play that wasn't quite so eager to touch so many bases—political, cultural and personal.
The Great Leap
Through November 20 at Outcalt Theatre, 1615 Euclid Ave., clevelandplayhouse.com