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Ping Pong Diplomacy
Much has been written about that historic event when the Chinese Premier Chou En-lai greeted the fifteen American table tennis players and several journalists so playwright Joe Basque has plenty of factual source material to draw on for his Ping Pong Diplomacy. What he's fashioned, however, is not a docu-drama but a funny and touching -- and, yes, informative -- re-imagining of those events. The diplomatic aspects of the invitational matches and the accompanying festivities are used to add pungency and humor and to give a star crossed lovers twist to the romance between Nick (Jesse Hooker), one of the young American players from the Midwest and Zhu (Constance Wu), China's female champion.
Basque has structured his play as a flashback, with a fifty something Nick (Christopher Graham) serving as narrator. The narration escapes the static typical of audience addressing monologues since our narrator doesn't just stand there but frequently takes a ping pong racket in hand to illustrate the action. Graham handles the role of narrator and observer of his own story gracefully though his voice is at times too loud for the the 59E59th Street complex's tiny Theater C (The basement in which my kids used to play ping pong -- I mean table tennis-- was bigger and accommodated a regulation sized table).
The action, whether in the past or present, plays out in a fairly bare bones production, with only a decidedly smaller than standard sized table and a Chinese Republic Flag as props. Given that this is a memory play, the under-sized, net-less table is actually just right and the minimal scenery makes for easy, unfussy transitions from China and Japan (where the American and Chinese Table Tennis teams first meet and the invitation for the Americans to visit China was issued) in Act One; and to Detroit, New York and Los Angeles, for the second act.
The playwright manages to sandwich in a fair amount of information about the political climate in 1971 and 1972 along with background about table tennis and its appeal to blue collar kids like Nick -- a fun activity for winters in a small town where there's little else to do; and, in his case, a building passion that becomes a chance to "collect trophies the size of Delaware" once his dad astutely encourages him to test his obvious skill in competitions. But as already stated, this is a play with a romantic story at its center, not a political or sports docu-drama. One look at the cute, pint-sized Chinese table tennis champion, Miss Zhu, and Nick, who thought Romeo and Juliet was pretty silly stuff in high school, is hopelessly smitten. And wonder of wonders, the attraction goes both ways and Zhu isn't at all as prim and unapproachable as she initially appears to be.
But as being far from home often intensifies the urgency of a romance it also tends to exacerbate hard to surmount differences. While this diplomatic initiative is a promising sign that China and the United States might, unlike the Capulets and Montagues, one day put their differences aside, the cultural differences still cast a giant shadow over the potential for a happily ever after ending for Nick and Zhu. .
Director David Hilder has elicited convincing performances from the entire cast. Jesse Hooker and Constance Wu portray Zhu and Nick endearingly, and the support cast, especially Jerzy Gwiazdowski and Kim Donovan as Nick's teammates, add a good deal of warmth and charm. Jeffrey Nauman most effectively and amusingly demonstrates the extent of the cultural divide -- first as a CIA operative who briefs the young Americans on what to expect at the celebratory banquets and meeting with Chou En Lai and in the second act, as a guide on a tour of a Detroit automobile factory (the versatile Nauman also does a brief stint as young Nick's father). Robert Wu handles Nauman's Chinese counterpoint characters to equally hilarious effect.
For all the ideas put on this small ping pong table, only the scene when the outcome of Zhu and Nick's romance hangs in the balance is excessively talky and debate-like. As to what happens, far be it from me to give away the outcome of this confrontation -- though I'm not spoiling anything when I tell you that this is not one of those ambiguous ending plays. Mr. Basque ties everything up and even throws in a real surprise.
Ping Pong Diplomacy is the runner up in Reverie Productions' Next Generation Playwriting Contest and is playing in repertory with the winning entry, Havana Bourgeouis by Carols Lacamara. That play takes us to another time and place, Havana, Cuba between 1958-1960. For our review go here.
To see a reproduction of the Time cover with the Table Tennis Goodwill am assadors go here
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