By Sarah Downs
It’s June, 1989 in San Francisco, and young, gifted basketball player Manford Lum (Tony Aidan Vo) faces an uncertain future. A senior in high school, he sees basketball as his one ticket out of life working a menial job. In pursuit of this goal Lum talks the University basketball coach Saul Slezac (Ned Eisenberg) into allowing him to play on the team Saul is taking to Beijing for a symbolic “friendship” game. They’ve picked a hell of a time to travel to China. As Lum’s ‘cousin’ Connie Fong (Ali Ahn) reminds him, student protest has broken out in Tiananmen Square, putting this U.S. team squarely in the middle of a national crisis. In China, Saul is reunited with Wen Chang (BD Wong), whom he met 18 years before on a previous basketball showcase. In the tumult of revolt, Lum’s youth and ambition leads him to take reckless chances. What would you do to keep a dream alive?
By turns funny and intense, The Great Leap is an intimate story played out on a world stage. The play is wonderfully written, well structured and very moving. The actors give consistently excellent performances. Ali Ahn, as Connie exudes warmth; alternately savvy, sympathetic and sensitive, she is Lum’s sole family member and staunch protector. Ned Eisenberg as Saul is a riot. He epitomizes the sardonic coach in love with the game but not willing to sacrifice his players. Eisenberg successfully dances between comedy and drama in a performance that is, as he might say, the whole mishpucha.
The action, both figuratively and literally centers around Tony Aidan Vo’s extraordinary, bravura performance as Lum. He is relentless. In Lum’s rare quieter moments of reflection, we have the chance to take a breath and process what we were seeing. Then it’s back to blinding speed. In contrast to Lum’s dynamic passion, Wen Chang must hide his feelings. As Chang, BD Wong is riveting. His every moment burns with longing. Speaking in a quiet measured tone he is nonetheless intense and remarkably present. The undercurrent of caged emotion finds its theatrical outlet in the extroversion of the Lum’s hyperactivity. Lum exudes all that the Chinese under Communism could not dare even to contemplate.
Takeshi Kata’s single-set design evokes a basketball court in a few simple strokes – traditional gymnasium lights hanging from the ceiling, a wooden floor with painted court lines, a pair of double doors. Lighting Designer Eric Southern bathes some scenes in color. He also takes advantage of the practical onstage lighting units, which transition seamlessly between scenes, greatly enhanced by David Bengali’s projections of period film footage that splash on and off the back wall. Crackling sound design by Broken Chord periodically jolts you in your seat, a propos of the haunting scenes of Tienanmen Square that appear on the backdrop. We all witnessed a massacre about which the Chinese population has been kept in the dark. Aptly named after the Communist government’s plan of accelerated modernization during the Cultural Revolution, The Great Leap speaks of ambition and overreach — and the power of idealism. If the courage of the protesters in Tienanmen Square teaches us nothing else, it reminds us that freedom is never won without great sacrifice. It is indeed a Leap of faith.
The Great Leap, written by Lauren Yee; directed by Taibi Magar; featuring BD Wong, Ali Ahn, Ned Eisenberg, and Tony Aidan Vo. Scenic design by Takeshi Kata, costume design by Tilly Grimes, lighting design by Eric Southern, sound & original compositions by Broken Chord, projection design by David Bengali, movement direction by Jesse Perez.
Presented by the Atlantic Theater Company. Playing Monday, June 4th through Sunday, June 24th at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Stage 2 (330 West 16th Street). For tickets, click here. Run time 2 hours with one 10 minute intermission.