There’s a play on stage at the Guthrie’s proscenium theater, but there’s so much in the way that it can be hard to find “The Great Leap.”
Actually, the first offender is Lauren Yee’s thoughtful but cluttered new play. It has three main characters, all men with thwarted dreams (Leah Anderson does what she can with a fourth character, whose job is to be supportive and not have dreams of her own). It shifts between two time periods, 1971 and 1989. It alternates between China and the U.S. It weaves in the student-led protests at Tiananmen Square, an element that would be more powerful if it were better integrated. It’s about basketball, bravery and cultural imperialism. And there’s a Big Secret you may guess before it’s revealed.
Director Desdemona Chiang struggles to bring those pieces together, also contending with Sara Ryung Clement’s unwieldy set, which sometimes forces the actors to pause for setpieces to get out of their way. To be fair, the play gave Clement a huge job, with all of those location/time shifts and the need to integrate photograph and video projections. But the set slows down a play that feels like it wants to accelerate, especially at the end.
Having said that, “The Great Leap” is on solid ground anytime canny Kurt Kwan is on stage. Kwan plays Wen Chang, a Chinese translator and reluctant basketball coach who is a bit like the butler at the center of “The Remains of the Day”: Exposure to a bigger world shows him, maybe too late, that he has watched passively as his life sped by. Yee gives the character a lot of narration, all of which Kwan handles gracefully and much of which is quite beautiful — as when Chang tells us that although “The Great Leap” seems to be a play about basketball players, it’s “a story not of those who run but those who stand still.” That is, coaches.
The other coach, who claims to have brought basketball to China (he didn’t) and whose team faces Chang’s in a climactic 1989 game, is a Brooklyn native named Saul (Lee Sellars, who seems to be playing the adjective “brash”).
The third key character is Manford, a popping-and-locking Chinese-American point guard who convinces Saul to let him join his team and who, in Lawrence Kao’s sure hands, is Yee’s most indelible creation.
Manford, “the most feared player in Chinatown,” gives Yee a chance to let loose with her knowing wit, as when Manford comments that his neighbor is “getting a degree in why Chinese people are sad” and the neighbor corrects him: “Asian studies.” Or when Manford, who is not shy about trumpeting his basketball prowess, says of another player, “I’ve seen eunuchs with better ball-handling skills.”
Yee is interested in whether Manford and the other characters can appreciate how things work in other cultures. Without giving anything away, that Big Secret Manford learns at the end of the play makes him rethink his whole life, and it’s such a compelling Big Secret that it might make you think: Wait, is that what this play should have been about all along?