Strangers in a Familiar Land

Written by Mark Peikert on . Posted in Posts, Theater.

Anyone with a tight budget and a hankering to see Chinglish, David Henry Hwang’s Broadway comedy about how
radically—and hilariously—different American and Chinese cultures are, should
head to the Off-Broadway Vineyard Theatre, where a scaled-down version of
Chinglish called Outside People is being performed.

Of course, it’s not playwright Zayd Dohrn’s fault that his
90-minute play was produced the same season as Hwang’s two-act, but the two
plays do speak to a certain lowest common denominator writing style that is
popular right now.

In both plays, American men who have traveled to China for
business purposes are shocked—shocked!—at how difficult the language is. Both
shows feature a sexy Chinese woman (an archetype that goes at least as far back
as Anna May Wong in Hollywood) who enters into a far-from-placid affair with
the American. And, of course, there are plenty of cultural differences to play
for laughs.

Chinglish at least
had a circuitous way of getting there, not to mention a fabulous performance by
Jennifer Lim. In
Outside People,
the play’s finale is visible in its opening scene, and all we’re left with is
endurance. Brought to China by a college buddy, Malcolm (Matt Dellapina,
playing the obvious inarticulate Jewish neuroses of his character) meets Xiao
Mei (Li Jun Li) his first night in Beijing. From there, they fumble their way
through an affair, as Malcolm casts her in a romantic peasant light and Mei
seems to simply enjoy being with him. Tension rears its head thanks to
Malcolm’s college buddy and now employer, David (Nelson Lee), who throws a
wrench into the burgeoning relationship.

There’s not much else to Dohrn’s story, and director Evan
Cabnet can’t make it seem like anything more than a pleasant distraction. Is
the beautiful Xiao Mei taking advantage of Malcolm for a visa, as David claims?
Is David as nice as he was in college? Will Malcolm ever tell his new
girlfriend that he has herpes?

Scenes come and go, necessitating quick changes to the
puzzle box of a set from Takeshi Kata, but they never add up. Mei has lunch
with David’s girlfriend Samanya (a quite good Sonequa Martin-Green), but their
relationship, as unlikely and somehow touching as it is, stops there. Malcolm’s
job is rarely discussed until it becomes an important plot point in regards to
David’s true nature, and Mei is never really anything but a blank canvas, used
by Dohrn as a litmus test for the characters of the other three. Culture
clashes aren’t new, but surely there’s a fresher way of discussing them than
that of Outside People.

Outside People
Through Feb. 4, The Vineyard, 108 E. 15th St.
(betw. Irving Pl. & Park Ave.),; $70.