San Francisco Theater Review: THE GREAT LEAP (A.C.T.)

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by Harvey Perr on March 19, 2019

in Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area


There is a stillness in B.D. Wong that is the embodiment of grace. In his exquisitely calibrated portrayal of Wen Chang, a Chinese party loyalist, Wong walks a delicate line between the elegance of one of the ballet world’s premier danseurs and a well-crafted and well-oiled machine. In his stride, he is confident and precise. Then, in a sharp turn, we see the defeat in his body which tells us that this is a man who is a prisoner of his own fear of ambition. Whether he has achieved this character by the innate strength of his own unique talent or with the help of his director, Lisa Peterson, or, even more, his movement coach, Danyon Davis, or an alchemy of all three, it is a thing of beauty and therefore beautiful to behold, and is the main if not the only reason to sit through Lauren Yee’s theatrically sprightly but dramatically inert The Great Leap, now on at A.C.T.

The program offers useful historical and cultural information about the event — a basketball tournament in Beijing in 1989 between an American team from the University of San Francisco and a Chinese team — which bespeaks a grand plan that detracts from the fact that the tale Yee is weaving is little more than a melodramatic soap opera with the Tiananmen Square protests thrown into the stew.

The first act, which largely takes place in America, before the departure for Beijing, talks itself to death, and the second act, which takes place in China, continues the jabber, but at least is now awash with Hana S. Kim’s vivid projections in the red glow of Yi Zhao’s imaginative lighting design. The problem is that two of the four characters are gross stereotypes. One is a young basketball player, Manford, with unspoken motives for going to China and, as athletically performed by Tim Liu, he is fascinating at first and totally predictable at last. Then there’s Saul, the USF coach; I don’t know if all coaches are like that — a foul-mouthed tough guy with a heart of mush — or if he just acts as all coaches do in movies and television, but Arye Gross, a really splendid actor who breathes as much life as possible into a walking cliché, cannot overcome the character’s familiarity.

The play’s fourth character, Connie, is Manford’s cousin but she seems less a real person than a conduit for telling the audience what the script doesn’t. She is played, however, with plucky charm, by the sparkling Rubo Qian. None of this is helped by Peterson’s direction, which, in its desire to make things clear, merely hammers away with a blunt instrument at the holes in the script. Good intentions aside, there is little to sustain the experience except Wong’s nuanced work. Yee’s Great Leap is but a small step for mankind.

photos by Kevin Berne

The Great Leap
American Conservatory Theater
A.C.T.’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary Street
ends on March 31, 2019
for tickets, call 415.749.2228 or visit A.C.T.

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