nytheatre.com review by David Gordon
January 6, 2012
Zayd Dohrn’s Outside People, a production of the Vineyard Theatre and Naked Angels, directed by Evan Cabnet, has the unlucky timing of opening the same season as a much higher-profile play about (relatively) the same subject: David Henry Hwang’s Chinglish. Much as I don’t want to, it’s difficult to not find similarities between the two, both of which examine an American outsider’s struggle to understand the language and sexual politics of China. The two plays are equally delightful, meritorious, and flawed, but while Hwang concerns himself with the language barrier (the romance seems to take a back seat), Dohrn’s interest lies in the struggle to find a mate, the language issues making it even more difficult.
The outsiders of the title are the four characters. Malcolm, a neurotic and apologetic East Coast liberal, has arrived in Beijing to work as the foreign (read: American) face of his old college roommate David (or Da Wei)’s company, which connects unemployed Chinese peasant laborers with job opportunities. At a club on his very first night in town, David and his girlfriend Samanya, a Cameroonian woman who regards herself as Chinese because she was raised there, introduce Malcolm to Xiao Mei, the daughter of peasant farmers, who has moved to Beijing to start a new life. They hit it off—and hook up—very quickly, as she begins to tutor him in Chinese and he begins to tutor her in English. Smitten, Malcolm sees Xiao Mei as “the one,” and begins planning to bring her to America when his working permit runs out.
Unafraid to portray the messier side of romance, Dohrn infuses the play with sort-of sinister overtones that subtract more than they add. The intentions of each character start raising suspicion early on, and, with the exception of Samanya (Sonequa Martin-Green), nobody is who we really expect or hope. David (played with fierce cocksureness by Nelson Lee), the outsider who returned home with an Ivy League degree, causes the generally ill-at-ease Malcolm (Matthew Dellapina is appropriately naïve and anxious) to begin to see cracks in his relationship with Xiao Mei (Li Jun Li, very affecting) that may or may not actually exist.
Not surprisingly, the play ends on a downbeat note that, while reflecting what might actually happen, doesn’t work as a satisfying capper. This is due, in part, to the deliberately alienating usage of Mandarin sans subtitles. While ingeniously turning the audience into outsiders, as well, it isn’t helpful when you can’t understand a climactic moment. (You do get the gist of it, via facial expressions.)
Kudos to author, director and the design team (Takeshi Kata on sets, Jessica Wegener Shay costumes, and Ben Stanton on lights) for creating an authentic milieu, down to the smallest detail of pouring hot water onto a restaurant plate to remove germs. As we come to realize, authenticity is a big deal when it comes to interpersonal relationships, and even bigger when your future happiness depends on it.