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Outside People

"She's way out of my league" —Malcolm about the beautiful Chinese woman his westernized Chinese friend David has fixed him up with.

"Yeah, but the best thing about being a lao wai (foreigner) here! You climb a step or two up the totem pole just from having a US passport. You rate a five in the States, you're at least like. . .a seven in Beijing."— David.
The impact of the global economy and its attendant connects, disconnects and cultural shocks— especially vis-a-vis China and the United States — has inspired three plays that take audiences to present day China: David Henry Wang's Chinglish about a Midwestern businessman whose effort to navigate the strange and confusing language and customs of potential new partners in Guiyang plays out in the boardroom as well as the bedroom of a factory town . . . Mike Daisey's solo documentary The Agony and the Ecstacy of Steve Jobs takes the monologist to Taiwan where he faces the reality of the labor exploitation that are the dark and dirty story behind what helps American businesses like Apple to succeed.

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.

Postscript: I wrote this review the same day as an article entitled "Go East, Young Man" by Jonathan Levine appeared on the Op-Ed page of the New York Times -- Levine, like Malcolm, was well educated but unsatisfyingly employed -- in his case, in a dead-end job in Greenwich, Conn. As he explained "When I saw the Occupy Wall Street protesters on TV, fed up with the economic status quo in the United States, I saw myself." That is until he moved to Beijing where he landed a job "teaching American culture and English at Tsinghua University."

Levine apparently had no special pull to get his job and declared that others willing to take a chance as he did will find the demand for native English speakers "white-hot." He recommended, and Dave’s ESL Cafe as just some of the places to search for work. While he also lists the down side of life inBeijing, it's clear that Malcolm could have found a way to escape living in his car even without David. Levine does not mention any romances with sexy native language teachers. His piece is, after all, a factual account and not a romantic comedy.

Both Levine's story and the current crop of plays about Americans in China brought to mind a very touching play by Warren Leight that I saw ten years ago -- ' No Foreigners Beyond This Point which was based on Leight's own youthful teaching gig in Canton.

Outside People by Zayd Dohrn
Directed by Evan Cabnet
Cast: Matthew Dellapina (Malcolm), Nelson Lee (David), Li Jun Li (Xio Mei), Sonequa Martin-Green (Samanya).
Sets: Takeshi Kata
Costumes: Jessica Wegener Shay
Lighting: Ben Stanton
Sound: Jill BC Du Boff
Stage Manager: Charles M. Turner II
Running time 90 minutes
Co-production of Vineyard Theater and Naked Angels
VineyardTheatre 108 East 15th St 212-353-0303
From 12/21/11; opening 1/10/12; closing 1/29/12
Tuesdays at 7pm, Wednesdays through Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 3pm and 8pm and Sundays at 3pm Tickets: are $70
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at January 5th press matinee
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