Wednesday, January 11, 2012

THEATER: Outside People

Photo/Carol Rosegg
The well-meaning American is alive and kicking in Zayd Dohrn's Outside People, in which Malcolm (Matt Dellapina), the would-be vegan/Communist from Williamsburg, Brooklyn (who nonetheless boats a Stanford education), travels to Beijing, China, to visit (and potentially work for) his old college roommate, David (Nelson Lee), only to hook up with a local, Xiao Mei (Li Jun Li), whom he both wants to save and be saved by. His awkwardness isn't limited only by his feeble attempts to speak Mandarin, but also by his heightened self-awareness, which leads to a cringingly funny hotel-room encounter in which Malcolm is determined to confess to a half-dressed Mei that it's possible he might give her herpes. He's even further out of water in comparison to the bright, highly assertive, and quadrilingual Samanya (Sonequa Martin-Green), David's extremely well-rounded (in every sense) African girlfriend. 

The question isn't whether or not Malcolm will fall in love with Mei, nor is it about whether he loves him or his passport: it's whether his sense of guilt will allow him to walk away with the girl, and the greatest strength going for Outside People is Dohrn's refusal to translate the complex emotions of love into black-and-white text. In fact, the play's strongest scene involves no English whatsoever -- no translations, either, although director Evan Cabnet's physical choices and tonal direction help one to follow along. In this scene, David drunkenly confronts Xiao Mei, either accusing her of manipulating his friend, or threatening her (as her superior -- class is the skirted-around centerpiece of this play). I can tell you that even with the script's translations in hand, it's impossible to tell how Mei really feels about Malcolm: like the term "shui bi," which is either an unspeakably impolite phrase or the way one says Sprite in Chinese, it's a matter of how one interprets the tone. 

Malcolm's the worst sort of romantic (and I have some experience in this regard): he's the Xanax-popping, ultra-shy, unbelieving type, who literally cannot believe his own good fortune (to a fault). And while he's perhaps right to be suspicious of the job David's provided him with -- a do-nothing, high-paying role in which his whiteness is being exploited to provide the company with "face" -- it's absolutely toxic to the relationship he claims to want with Mei: "I don't want [to know] the best part. I want all of it. Everything." But one man's foul is another man's gold, and for Dohrn, Malcolm's tics and inhibitions make for a oil well of winning dialogue. Moreover, they reflect well on the entire cast, with Lee indomitably chewing through his scenes, Martin-Green providing the sharp, intellectual banter we expect of a play like this, and Li serving quietly serving her heart on a platter. 

You can tell Outside People is a fully conceived work from its natural flow and complex actions, but moreover, from the way that it allows all four characters -- not just the star-crossed lovers -- to, at times, be the titular outsiders, trapped with the fear of never fully being known or recognized, of never having a home. But most importantly, you can tell Outside People is a good play because you'll still be arguing about it on the inside, too. 

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