BD Wong, left, and Arye Gross appear in American Conservatory Theater’s production of Lauren Yee’s “The Great Leap.” (Courtesy Kevin Berne)

‘Great Leap’ mixes hoops and hopes at ACT

Politics, culture clashes and generational divides are recurring themes for playwright Lauren Yee. The recent production of her “King of the Yees” at San Francisco Playhouse plucked at all these strings in a comic and cosmic flight of fantasy that challenged the leading character — playwright named Lauren Yee — and her father to rediscover common ground in the intersection of modern and traditional values.

“The Great Leap,” now at the Geary Theater, is more earthbound. That’s not a criticism, but rather expectation management, with one coming so closely on the heels of another.

Developed in the New Strands at American Conservatory Theater in 2017, “The Great Leap” stars Tony Award-winner and San Francisco native BD Wong, along with Arye Gross, Tim Liu and Ruibo Qian. Despite its sports-centric marketing, familiarity with hoops and dribbling is not required. You’d be better served brushing up on China in the late 20th century around the time of the Tiananmen Square protests.

Even that is not essential to appreciating the play’s core themes of self-understanding and self-acceptance.

Manford (Liu) is a Chinatown high school basketball prodigy on a mission to land a spot on the University of San Francisco team before it heads to Beijing in 1989, for an erstwhile “rematch” between the team’s trash-talking coach Saul (Gross) and Saul’s one-time protégé Wen Chang (Wong), now coach of the leading Chinese squad.

Yee has a gift for rapid-paced dialogue that fits believably in the mouths of an aging Jewish jock from the Bronx, a street-smart, smart-ass kid from San Francisco and a cautiously free-thinking bilingual survivor of the Cultural Revolution. She also plots layer upon layer, weaving threads from different arcs into a final stage image that you can see coming, but is no less visceral for that anticipation.

Lisa Peterson, associate director at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, spins Yee’s gifts into stellar performances from the cast and directs the production with a pleasing balance of kinetic game-time energy and the slo-mo stillness of examined moments. Projection designer Hana S. Kim scores extra points for expertly evoking a wide range of venues (including a zippy BART train) on Robert Brill’s spare but exceedingly versatile scenic designs.

Each of the three men in “The Great Leap” is leaning toward something, be it validation, identity, or reconciliation, and each is convinced they will find it in China. Yee leaves it to Connie (Qian), the only woman in the piece, to try to disabuse at least Manford of that notion. “You see yourself there,” she cautions him. “I’ve been to China. I didn’t.”

REVIEW
The Great Leap
Presented by American Conservatory Theater
Where: Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., S.F.
When: 7 or 8 p.m. Tuesdays, 2 and 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 2 p.m. Sundays; closes March 31
Tickets: $22 to $110
Contact: (415) 749-2228, www.act-sf.org

American Conservatory TheaterArye GrossBD WongGreat LeapLauren YeeLisa PetersonRuibo QianTheaterTim Liu

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