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Entertainment & Arts

Review: How ‘The Great Leap’ in Pasadena scores with a mix of hoops and heartbreak

James Eckhouse, left, Justin Chien, Christine Lin and Grant Chang in “The Great Leap” at the Pasadena Playhouse.
James Eckhouse, left, Justin Chien, Christine Lin and Grant Chang in “The Great Leap” at the Pasadena Playhouse.
(Jenny Graham)

You may not know — I didn’t — that basketball is huge in China. Missionaries introduced the sport there in 1895, soon after it was invented, and when the Communists came into power in 1949, it was one of the few Western cultural contributions they didn’t criminalize. Apparently Chairman Mao was a fan.

Lauren Yee’s stunning play “The Great Leap,” now at the Pasadena Playhouse in a gorgeous co-production with East West Players, uses the shared Chinese and American love of basketball as a kind of Rosetta Stone, a key that could unlock understanding between two mutually baffling cultures.

The title refers, yes, to Mao Tse-tung’s Great Leap Forward, a disastrous economic reform of the late 1950s, but it also calls to mind a gravity-defying dunk. And it works just as well as a metaphor for Yee’s bold playwriting approach.

Like Yee’s “Cambodian Rock Band,” in which teenagers’ dreams of rock stardom get derailed by the Khmer Rouge, “The Great Leap” lures us in with its humorous focus on ordinary characters — basketball coaches and players — then pans out to locate them in a cataclysmic moment in history, the Tiananmen Square uprising. The effect is dizzying.

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Is it OK to use a historical atrocity like this? I wondered, through tears, at the end of both plays. I still don’t have an answer. But I now feel personally connected to tragedies that once seemed safely distant, unrelated to me.

“The Great Leap” starts off in 1989, when a scrappy high-school basketball star, Manford (Justin Chien), sneaks into a practice at San Francisco University to beg for a spot on the team. The bald, aging coach, Saul (James Eckhouse), is skeptical but intrigued. Manford can sink 99 free throws in a row. And he has useful insights into the challenges SFU will face in an upcoming exhibition game against Beijing University.

James Eckhouse as the coach, Justin Chien as the free-throw-sinking player in “The Great Leap.”
James Eckhouse as the coach, Justin Chien as the free-throw-sinking player in “The Great Leap.”
(Jenny Graham)

Manford’s mother has just died; his cousin, Connie (Christine Lin), who looks after him, objects to his plans to go to Beijing. But then Manford shows her a black-and-white photograph of two basketball coaches shaking hands, one American, one Chinese. Mysteriously, Connie changes her mind and urges Manford to take the trip.

Next Yee takes us to the moment of that photograph: Beijing in 1971. Saul (Eckhouse, now fitted with a shaggy wig) is there at the request of the government to whip Beijing University’s team into shape. His appointment comes with a translator/assistant coach/watchdog, Wen Chang (Grant Chang), a low-level Communist Party member chosen for his English skills.

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Or at least, his formal English skills: Wen Chang, who also narrates the story, is panicked by Saul’s idiomatic profanity, which he tries to translate word for word. (The hilarious results can’t be printed here.) But what baffles Wen Chang more is the American’s philosophy: Saul urges the players to steal the ball from one another, to act as if “it is always your turn.” This advice contradicts everything Wen Chang has learned about life. He has always waited for his turn. He has never attempted to stand out.

“Growing up, you did not want to be someone,” he tells the audience. “You wanted to be the person three people behind someone. Being someone could get you killed.”

Still the men bond, endearingly. Saul teaches Wen Chang to trash-talk, teases him about his crush on a girl from school — and so 18 years later, when Wen Chang invites Saul and his SFU team back for a “friendship match,” Saul assumes it’s going to be a friendship match. He has no idea the Chinese have been seething all these years over the remark he made upon leaving Beijing: “No Chinese team will ever beat an American team.” And plotting their revenge. And he can’t predict that the game will take place during the Tiananmen Square riots.

Like “Cambodian Rock Band,” “The Great Leap” is a fairy tale in realistic clothing, and its plot hinges unapologetically — even proudly — on strained coincidences and implausible contrivances. Yee even makes a joke out of how easily her characters gain access to secure buildings: They go in through the players’ entrance, which is never locked.

But the mechanics of her plot sometimes push credulity too far, and she has left some big holes that periodically threaten to undermine everything: Manford’s nonchalance about his mother’s death, for example, is never sufficiently explained, especially as this absent character becomes more important in the story. Meanwhile, the maternal stand-in, Connie, isn’t given quite enough to do.

And though it makes sense, structurally, for the play to hinge on the outcome of the big game, the way that game is actually staged — with the four characters dancing around one another in a basketball-y way, shouting out the play-by-play along with their reactions — is energetic but clunky.

At other points, director BD Wong, with the help of Leon Rothenberg’s sound design and Hana S. Kim’s beautiful projections, incorporates basketball seamlessly into the action. More important, Wong, who played Wen Chang in two previous productions of this play, expertly steers the characters’ emotional journeys: The four performances are among the most moving I’ve encountered. The commanding but nuanced stage work of Eckhouse, whom I had known only as the affable dad from “Beverly Hills, 90210,” came as a wonderful surprise. And Chang broke my heart.

Eckhouse, left, with Grant Chang “The Great Leap.”
Bring your hankies. Eckhouse, left, with Grant Chang in “The Great Leap.”
(Jenny Graham)

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'The Great Leap'
Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays, through Dec. 1

Tickets: $25 and up

Info: (626) 356-7529 or PasadenaPlayhouse.org

Running time: Two hours (one intermission)

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