Lauren Yee's The Great Leap tells a story with so much connection to San Francisco, it seems odd that the play actually premiered last year in Denver before moving on to a six-week run in New York. It only now has made it back to ACT, where Yee first wrote and workshopped the play as part of the company's inaugural New Strands Residency program.
The play tells the fictional story of an exhibition basketball game in 1989 featuring the men's team from the University of San Francisco — the famed Dons — and a team at Beijing University. Yee skips in time back to 1971, when USF coach Saul (Arye Gross), then an assistant coach, traveled to China to be an advisor to a nascent team sponsored by the Communist Party. He teaches "the American way" of playing and coaching to a timid young party official named Wen Chang — played by Tony Award-winner and San Francisco native BD Wong — and then promises to return 18 years later for a "friendship" game.
At the last minute before the trip to Beijing, Saul ends up meeting his secret weapon, a 17-year-old Chinese-American player who still hasn't graduated high school named Manford (Tim Liu) with some considerable skill. What he lacks in height he makes up for in talent, and Saul and Manford head to China in early June, 1989 — right as the student protests are happening in Tiananmen Square. "It’s China, four days, what could happen?" Saul says as the lights go down on Act One, and of course the trip is not nearly as simple or as "friendly" as Saul expected.
The four-person cast also features Ruibo Qian as Manford's no-nonsense "cousin" Connie, and director Lisa Peterson does a remarkable job of conveying both the energy of a basketball game — and the presence of crowds and a dozen other players — with just the movement of these four people. Liu is endlessly energetic as the often manic Manford, and the choreography of the eventual Beijing game in Act Two is especially mesmerizing and effective.
Yee says she was inspired to write the play in part because of stories she heard from her father, Larry Yee, who grew up playing basketball in SF's Chinatown, and in particular the story of several of her father's friends and he traveling to Beijing to play local teams in 1981. Another connection: BD Wong's father, William D. Wong, also played pickup basketball in SF's Chinatown.
But in creating the tidy four-person fiction that is this play, Yee perhaps relies too much on the gods of coincidence, making all-too-easy ties between her characters that result in sort of predictable, mostly pat conclusions.
Wong, meanwhile, is eminently watchable as the eternally conflicted Wen Chang, and he creates a deeply empathetic portrayal of a Chinese national who's all too aware of his cultural prison.
The writing, though, is smart and funny throughout, with snappy-patter dialogue that has plenty of humorous payoffs. And the set design by Robert Brill skillfully utilizes a modular wall and projections to evoke a range of urban spaces — as well a mock basketball court on a raked stage, for maximum visibility.
Wong's performance, and the satisfyingly dramatic — if not at all believable — twists of the plot in the play's final scenes, make The Great Leap worth the price of admission. Just don't be too much of a stickler for credulity.
'The Great Leap' plays at ACT's Geary Theater through March 31. Find tickets here.