ACT’s ‘Stuck Elevator’ pushes buttons

Like its undocumented protagonist struggling to find a place in the city of strangers, “Stuck Elevator,” a world premiere at American Conservatory Theater, resists easy categorization.

It is musical, but not really “a musical.” It is occasionally operatic, more than just a song cycle, and yet not wholly any of the above.

On the surface, it is 81 hours in the life of Guang, an undocumented Chinese immigrant who is trapped in the titular device.

Guang delivers Americanized Chinese food to the residents of Manhattan, N.Y., riding his bicycle from building to building and happily responding to tips with parroted snippets of English. (“Thank you! Thank you! Dollar! Holla!”)

Beautifully played and sung by Julius Ahn, Guang is endearing and invites empathy. He’s just a guy trying to make it in the urban jungle. However, a range of complications that most audience members do not have to endure compounds his stroke of bad luck and adds a relevant social currency to the work.

The average person would just push the alarm button and wait for the cavalry to respond. Beyond complications of language, Guang lacks identification, so he cannot ask for help lest he be discovered and deported, wasting the crushing $120,000 debt he incurred to a vicious loan shark in order to be smuggled into America. So he waits.

Daniel Ostling’s spare, industrial set has a perfect, prisonlike mien, and the claustrophobia of the setting is either relieved or dissipated, depending on your viewpoint, by Guang’s periodic escapes to interact with an ensemble (Marie-France Arcilla, Joseph Anthony Foronda, Raymond J. Lee, Joel Perez).

The four actors represent the populace of his thoughts, from sweet home-movie moments with his wife and son still in China, to his dysfunctional relationships with his current co-workers, to the harrowing journey that got him to the New World.

As his deprivation-induced delirium increases, thoughts become more fantastical as he faces off against a Marvel-grade anthropomorphized elevator-as-villain character.

Based on a true story, the music by Byron Au Yong and libretto by Aaron Jaffries have an appropriately urban feel, laced with ethnic Chinese flourishes.

Director Chay Yew creates an affecting fantasia of worries, hopes, desires, joy and pain for his leading character that contain both a timeless humanity and a modern specificity.

Neither a light entertainment nor a polemic, “Stuck Elevator” does not offer answers to the issues inherent in its story, but like good theater should, it inspires audiences to consider the questions not just from their own perspectives.

Stuck Elevator

  • Where: American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., S.F.
  • When: 8 p.m. today-Friday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday
  • Tickets: $20 to $85
  • Contact: (415) 749-2228, www.act-sf.org
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