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'The Great Leap' at the Guthrie: Slam dunks don’t lead to high scores in this basketball drama

Dan Norman

Dan Norman

Granted, it was a football jersey at a play about basketball. Still, the highly unusual presence of any athletic garb whatsoever in the McGuire Proscenium audience suggested that if the Guthrie Theater’s staff hopes to attract some sports fans with The Great Leap, they’re succeeding.

The Great Leap

Guthrie Theater
$29-$78

People whose streaming queues are full of movies like Hoosiers, The Mighty Ducks, and Miracle may get more out of The Great Leap than they ever thought they could from a show at the Guthrie. Lauren Yee’s 2018 play hits all the genre’s cliches: the grizzled coach who’s still smarting from a youthful mistake, the gifted but callow kid who thinks he can take on the world, the big game that comes down to one shot at the foul line, and the precise coincidence with the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.

Okay, that last one isn’t something you’d typically find in a Disney movie. It suggests both the scope of Yee’s ambitions and the stretch of her contrivances. In knitting a fictional sports story together with historic real-world events, Yee creates an alternate universe where an exhibition basketball match doesn’t just provide a metaphor, it all but takes the place of the United Nations Security Council.

Remarkably, there are only four actors onstage for this entire geo-athletic epic. In a play that doesn’t take many turns you don’t see coming, maybe the biggest surprise is that the kid and the coach we meet at the outset don’t turn out to be the most important characters. Ultimately, the story centers on the rival coach Wen Chang (Kurt Kwan), who leads a crack Chinese team against a squad of American underdogs.

The Americans are under the ill-tempered supervision of Coach Saul (Lee Sellars), whose glory days included a 1971 trip to advise some rookie Chinese roundballers. Wen Chang was Saul’s translator and protégé during that visit, making the 1989 game a matchup of master versus apprentice.

Saul’s other apprentice is Manford (Lawrence Kao), a Chinatown teenager whose successful tryout consists of making 99 free throws in a row. When the team gets to Beijing, though, Manford goes rogue and gets caught up among protesters the Americans have been told to steer clear of.

The script strains to keep up with all of these plot threads, instead of taking a timeout to explore some of the intriguing themes that the story glances over: identity, family, immigration, racism. Director Desdemona Chiang keeps the ball in play, but neither comic moments nor dramatic beats really land with the kind of satisfying swish we’re waiting for.

With a cast (also including Leah Anderson as Manford’s cousin) doing solid but unremarkable work, the show’s real stars are on the design team. Sara Ryung Clement’s set is at once minimalist and monumental, with costume designer Helen Huang and sound designer Sarah Pickett adding ample period detail.

The Great Leap
Guthrie Theater
818 S. Second St., Minneapolis
Through February 10; 612-377-2224