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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
The just opened Vineyard Theater and Naked Angels co-production of Zayd Dohrn's Outside People, takes us to Beijing. While heavy on contrivances and incomplete plot details, the 4-character comedy is a fast-paced, entertaining look at the whirlpool of cultural adjustments that are as much a part of life in today's constantly changing world as e-mail and texting.
Outside People, like Chinglish, focuses on an American whose career has been in a downward spin. Our anti-hero in this instance is Malcolm (Matt Dellapina), a somewhat nebbishy twenty-something from Hoboken, New Jersey whose Stanford University degree has done little to help him fulfill his dream of being a documentary film maker. Stanford did, however, result in a lasting friendship with David (Nelson Lee) a student from Beijing. David has parlayed his American residency into success as one of China's new high flying capitalists (in his case as a job recruiter specializing in peasants seeking new opportunities in Bejing.
While the very Westernized David is enjoying a lavish life style, Malcolm has been so impoverished that he's been sleeping in his car. His romantic life is equally downbeat, it's only yield being a case of Herpes. And so, as Chinglish's David Cavanaugh saw a Chinese factory deal as a chance to reclaim his lost sense of belonging, so Malcolm finds friend David's offer of a job in his Beijing office irresistible. Sure there's the language barrier and the job is ridiculously devoid of any responsibilities, let alone stimulation -- but who cares, with Xiao Mei (Li Jun LI), the sexy Chinese language teacher David has provided, to turn reciprocal language lessons into a love affair.
The problem is that language isn't the only cultural difference which this love affair must transcend. Though the audience doesn't need super titles to understand what's said even during the occasional bits of non-English dialogue, there are other differences which are harder to transcend. These beyond language cultural differences affect not only Malcolm's relationship with Xiao Mei and David, but also David's relationship with his girl friend Samanya, the daughter of a Cameroon diplomat raised in China who wants only to date Chinese men, as David wants nothing to do with Chinese women. Clearly the play's title, Outside People fits everyone on stage.
The playwright himself is no stranger to this sense of being an outsider even in one's own country. He grew up the child of parents who were part of the radical Weathermen Group, went into hiding after an accidental explosion of a Manhattan Town House he was(named Zayd after Black Panther Zayd Shakur) and was raised during the years when they were on the FBI's "Most Wanted" list and lived in hiding.
Since Dohrn frequently spends time in China (It's his wife's homeland) he is also well acquainted with the outside feeling that comes when finding oneself in unfamiliar places, even when being far from home is exciting and stimulates one's sense of self-knowledge. Undoubtedly his own experiences have helped him to make all four of his characters interesting and intriguing, though not one of them is particularly sympathetic.
Director Evan Cabnet has drawn top-notch performances from the cast. Matt Dellapina gives a winning performance as the nerdy American who's at sea whether at home and abroad, in or out of love. Nelson Lee is just right as the smooth operator who sees the world through an all-out opportunist's eyes and ultimately reveals his still lingering native pride, as when he takes umbrage at Malcolm's constantly mispronouncing his surname. The women are not only gorgeous but play their roles well —, Sonnequa Martin-Green as the vibrant but also not as much in her comfort zone as she seems Samanya and Li Jun Lee as the country mouse hoping for a better life in the big city.
Takeshi Kata's sleek sliding and gliding back wall and scene setting props establish the atmosphere of old and new cultures being whirled together in a Cuisinart at super high speed. This is emphasized by Jill BC Du Boff's intense, ear pounding between scenes music
Perhaps the way the very differences that draw us to foreign people and places can also be hurdles to truly accepting and understanding each other is best summed up by Malcolm's eventual nervousness about a long term relationship with Li Jun Lee. He admits to being overwhelmed by the idea of spending a whole life with a woman whose "body isn't made up of -- bacon and eggs and Cheerios. All the stuff I'm used to. . .it's made of like-- tofu and beansprouts! You chan (calimari skewer). How insane is that? We're literally made up of different materials."
Will Malcolm's friendship with David survive David disapproval of his relationship with the language teacher? Will the romance withstand David's disapproval? The stylish production makes it worth spending 90 minutes at the Vineyard Theater to find out for yourself.
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