A decade ago, a Boston production of Lauren Yee’s “Hookman,” a combination slasher-flick satire and psychological suspense drama, made it clear that the playwright, then 26, was a writer worth paying attention to.
Since then, Yee has fulfilled that early promise, partly on the strength of her arrestingly original voice and enjoyably pungent, sharp-elbowed dialogue, and partly on her knack for crafting plays — like her “Cambodian Rock Band” — in which individuals are caught within the unstoppable machinery of history.
Yee’s “The Great Leap,” now at Lyric Stage Company of Boston under the direction of Michael Hisamoto, travels a somewhat similar trajectory. It doesn’t quite deliver the emotional punch that “Cambodian Rock Band” does, and there are a couple of static stretches, as well as an overly subdued performance in a leading role. Nonetheless, this is a “Leap” worth taking.
A chief pleasure at Lyric Stage is Tyler Simahk’s all-out portrayal of Manford Lum, a driven Chinese-American youth. It’s 1989, and even though he’s a high schooler, Manford is intent on pushing his way onto a team of college players that is headed to China for an exhibition “friendship” game against players from Beijing University.
That team is coached by Wen Chang, portrayed by Gary Thomas Ng in a performance that is a bit too understated. Even granting that Wen’s journey from recessive, keep-your-head-down anonymity to bold self-assertion is a main story line, he needs to be a more compelling figure for us to fully care about that journey. Ng does, however, nail Wen’s climactic scene.
Manford recently lost his mother and never knew his father. The person who seems closest to him is Connie (Jihan Haddad), who is even less afraid to speak her mind than Manford is. Before the play is over, though, cracks will appear in Manford’s breezy self-assurance; hidden hurt and vulnerability will rise to the surface. Wherever they start out from, Yee’s characters often end up exploring what they’re capable of, for good or ill, and in the process they — and we — discover previously unknown or repressed aspects of their identity.
At the start of the play, Manford is determined to showcase his hoop skills — and fulfill a burning need to prove himself — on a bigger stage than the high school contests where he is a dominant figure. Or might there be another reason he is so determined to get to China?
He demands — Manford doesn’t ask, he demands — that Saul Slezac (Barlow Adamson, solid as usual), the middle-aged, curmudgeonly coach of the University of San Francisco men’s basketball team and of the team of college players assembled for the friendship game, give him a tryout. (We are told that Saul played for USF when he was a student there — and on the team led by Bill Russell and K.C. Jones, no less. Now that’s some high-quality name-dropping!)
“I am the most relentless person you have ever met,’’ Manford tells Saul. The coach has some relentlessness of his own, but having just posted a losing record, and with his career on the downswing, he also has something to prove, and he might need Manford to prove it. So the coach lets the young firebrand join the team.
In flashbacks to 1971, we see Saul (wearing a paisley shirt and oversize sideburns that would put Elvis to shame) in Beijing, patronizingly lecturing 25-year-old Wen on the basics of coaching basketball. It’s the height of the brutal Cultural Revolution in China, and Wen’s assignment as a coach is part of his “rehabilitation” by the Communist Party.
By 1989, when the US basketball team arrives in Beijing, Wen is the coach of the national team that will take on Saul’s squad. The game may be about “friendship,’’ but that’s not the right word to describe the relationship between Wen and Saul. Meanwhile, the Tiananmen Square protests are underway, with reverberations that will extend to the denouement of “The Great Leap.”
One final note: While “The Great Leap” is of course about more than sports, it helps that Simahk moves like a point guard and dribbles a ball between his legs with ease. He’s got game.
THE GREAT LEAP
Play by Lauren Yee
Directed by Michael Hisamoto
Presented by Lyric Stage Company of Boston. Through March 19.
Tickets $25-$75. 617-585-5678, www.lyricstage.com