Outside People

by Zayd Dohrn
Directed by Evan Cabnet
Featuring Matt Dellapina, Nelson Lee, Li Jun Li Sonequa Martin-Green
Vineyard Theatre + Naked Angels
at Vineyard Theatre, 108 East 15th Street
January 10, 2012 — January 29, 2012
production web site

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
January 7, 2012

  • “You want to know the best way to learn a language?  Pillow talk.”
  • “Culture shock will fuck you up.  It will pass.”
(L-R) Li Jun Li, Nelson Lee, Sonequa Martin-Green, Matt Dellapina. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

In 1967’s The Graduate Ben Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) has just completed an Ivy League degree and has returned to his Pasedena, California parents’ home to contemplate, with some fear, his next steps into his future. In grown-up suits on a slight man’s body (30 year old Hoffman plays 22) ready to receive the suggestions of his parents’ friends (including the famous career recommendation: “plastics”) or in swimming trunks and flippers plodding around his parents’ backyard pool or fooling around with one of his parents’ friends Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) and then her daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross) — Ben is at a loss.  He has some skills but the pieces don’t quite compute.  There are dimensions of the world around him Ben just doesn’t understand, and may never understand, though he speaks the language and grew up in the culture.  In Outside People, Zayd Dohrn has created a similar post-graduate young man in Malcolm (Matthew Dellapina) who appears to be in a permanent state of flummox.  And for the most part this journey of a set of young people in China working their way to their next adventure succeeds quite well.

Malcolm arrives in Beijing to take advantage of a job offer from his old college friend Da Wei “David” Wang (Nelson Lee).  A few years have passed since they graduated from Stanford.  David has a Beijing business in job finding (we soon discover that there are almost “indentured servant” kinds of arrangements involved in some parts of his business), and Malcolm who been jobless for a short while, will add some white-man flash to David’s corporate image.  Malcolm is introduced to David’s lover Samanya (Sonequa Martin-Green), daughter of an African diplomat who has brown up in Beijing yet speaks in a Cockney accent (this combination is enchanting yet perhaps intentionally a bit culturally puzzling).  David has arranged an informal date for Malcolm this first evening in town with Xiao Mei (Li Jun Li), a beautiful language teacher, who has her own complicated past and business relationship with David.  Each of the handsome four characters in the hands of skilled actors has secrets and ambitions that are slowly revealed.  Through Malcolm’s earnestness, and the emotional needs of the smart 20-somethings driving this plot, power, petulance, and gender roles are played out.

Ben in The Graduate and Malcolm in Outside People make the final moves.  Ben dramatically steals away his love Elaine from her wedding to another, and the two young lovers are left, in the back of a bus, shocked at their audacity and perhaps a bit appalled at what might lie ahead of them.  And Malcolm makes a final decision about his romance with Xiao Mei, and perhaps is stepping into the rest of his own life.  We are left with questions, rather than answers.

I am not sure whether the concurrent New York City production of David Henry’s Wang‘s much-supertitled Chinglish and its story of business wiles and romance across cultural boarders will help or hinder the general impressions of Outside People‘s story lines.  Both are set in China, both involve a visiting American with limited Chinese language skills, and at this point (for me) the comparisons fall away.  In Wang’s piece translation itself is in large part the story.  As his American lead character David Cavanaugh says at the top, and repeats throughout: “Bring your own translator”.  Words twisted, misunderstood, intentionally misused form a choreographed through-line using superscript scrolling simultaneous translations comprising the “true word”, against which the human characters sometimes play.  Willful or inartful translations become jokes for the audience to enjoy as an omniscient presence. The worlds of the characters will be separate in Chinglish as long as the culture that informs the language in which the characters speak is not fully understood.  In Outside People, on the other hand, we return to old-fashioned storytelling and the conventions of translation — in a group, some characters translate language for others who need it, and we in the audience need to trust that the words are true, or reasonably true.  A few jokes are made about the wild misunderstandings that can result from a slight mispronunciation, but these are passing and feel as though the playwright is merely nodding to the expectations of cross-language conventions.  One of the most powerful sequences in the play transpires between David and Xiao Mei entirely in Chinese, yet an English-speaking audience understands perfectly the economic, gender, and power politics that play out. It is quite devastating.

Set design by Takeshi Kata is delicate and delightfully layered.  A box slides out to comprise a hotel room; lights and lanterns descend to create a park; upstage bars create a corporate office milieu.  Lighting design by Ben Stanton ranges from nightclub to fireworks show in a Beijing park at night (burst of light in actor faces).  A delicate hand with sound by Jill BC Du Boff deliciously enhances the percussive and more delicate audio moments.

© Martha Wade Steketee (January 11, 2012)

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