A sports coach can be more than a mentor, and so it goes with Saul Slezak. The American basketball coach in the 2018 Lauren Yee play “The Great Leap” – who describes himself as “the least circumcised Jew from the Bronx” – dispenses tough love as a kind of second father to ambitious 17-year-old Chinese-American would-be point guard Manford Lum. Eventually, their mentor-protégé relationship and Saul’s evolving one with Chinese coach Wen Chang will have as much to do with this dramedy’s messages about friendship and caring as basketball. Under Michael Hisamoto’s careful direction, the Lyric Stage Company of Boston’s area premiere scores a theatrical slam dunk.
Inspired by real events and a “friendship game” between American and Chinese college basketball players in 1989 Beijing, “The Great Leap” begins with a focus on Manford’s development as a player for Saul’s University of San Francisco team. The second act takes the USF team to China for the historic match with Wen Chang’s Beijing University team. While there are significant moments of training, practice, and shooting throughout the play, Yee (known for her “Cambodian Rock Band”) also devotes considerable time and revealing dialogue to the back stories of Saul, Manford, and Wen Chang.
Saul turns out to have been a long-haired, beads-wearing sandaled hippy – credit Seth Bodie’s period costumes – and an unfulfilled player himself before becoming a demanding coach. Frustrated by an 8-20 season and facing possibly being fired, he looks to a win in the Beijing match for job security.
With an injured point guard, Saul is willing to overlook Manford’s age and height (under 6 feet) in favor of his free throw accuracy, high energy, and agility. He finds the determined newcomer lighting up his team. Eventually, audiences will learn that Manford’s late mother lit up Chinese basketball.
While Saul is outspoken and sometimes foul-mouthed, Wen Chang comes across early on as reserved and careful. Not surprisingly, his back story reflects the impact of China’s Cultural Revolution. Chang observes, “You wanted to be the person three people behind someone.” A kind of mentor to Wen in their 1970s association, Saul advises him to be a strong and decisive coach. Only when the American delivers his firing-up spiel on arriving in Beijing does he caution his players to be relative diplomats – the Tiananmen Square protesting notwithstanding.
When Manford becomes lost, that diplomacy gives way. Although there may be melodramatic moments as the game approaches and his participation appears to be in doubt, there are moving revelations and solid insights about family and friendship.
Barlow Adamson captures Saul’s early youthful irreverence and later complex demeanor as a mentor. He is very convincing as the coach peppers his talk with locker room dialogue and makes Yiddish references – particularly as he contends that the ‘’whole mishpocha [family]” will be watching the game.
Tyler Simahk has all of Manford’s intensity and vulnerability. His dribbling and ball-handling are equally persuasive. Gary Thomas Ng catches Wen’s early reticence – especially about political concerns. He effectively moves the coach from 1971 insecurity to 1989 confidence. Jihan Haddad makes Manford’s protective neighbor properly caring. High praise goes to Michael
Clark Wonson’s nuanced lighting – most notably with shadow in evoking the basketball grace of Manford’s mother and Tiananmen Square protesters.
Throughout Yee’s intriguing play, characters speak of having their respective turns in life. Thanks to Lyric Stage Company’s very affecting staging, her play is a double-teamed delight. Θ
“The Great Leap” runs through March 19 at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston, 140 Clarendon Street in the YWCA building. For tickets, visit www.lyricstage.com.