Written by Zayd Dohrn
Directed by Evan Cabnet
Beijing is a slick playground for an international jet-set in Outside People
, Zayd Dohrn's new drama of cross-cultural misunderstanding being co-produced by the Vineyard Theatre
and Naked Angels
(through January 29). This nexus of treacherous and exploitable power dynamics ensnares Malcolm (Matt Dellpina), a bearded Brooklynite with a Woody Allen demeanor and nothing going on, just arrived as the play begins at the summoning of his successful former Stanford roommate David (Nelson Lee). The smiling, slimy host—who makes a living funneling migrant workers from the countryside into jobs in the megalopolis—sets up his prized caucasian recruit with a job, hotel room and Chinese teacher with benefits, Mei (Li Jun Li). Malcolm falls for Mei, testing his friendship with David and revealing his host country's thinly concealed but profoundly felt class divisions.
Dohrn's play, swift at 90 minutes but not without a couple of extraneous scenes, keeps a narrow focus rather than attempting a broader cultural snapshot—like Chinglish
, or even Nixon in China
. Still, within this restrained scope Outside People
touches on China's deep urban-rural divide, the disastrous effects of sudden and extreme wealth, visiting Americans' righteousness and clumsy attempts at political correctness and the enduring appeal of immigration to the U.S. Dohrn attempts to shoehorn in another international perspective with the character of David's girlfriend Samanya (Sonequa Martin-Green), the Beijing-raised daughter of a Nigerian diplomat, but her scenes are the play's flattest—through no fault of Martin-Green's.
The drama's most compelling dynamic is that between Mei and Malcolm, and Evan Cabnet choreographs his production around their strange, fumbling romance. Dellpina and Li are both very strong, their scenes together nerve-wracking, embarrassing, tender, sweet and savage, often simultaneously. Takeshi Kata's set design adds immensely, juxtaposing the color and bustle of Beijing streets with the bland beigeness of Malcolm's hotel room. (Whoever selected the songs for the scene transitions, a grab-bag of booming Chinese hip-hop, deserves some sort of honorary Obie.) The play ends abruptly on a profoundly ambiguous note as characters weigh their opportunities to be lifelong outsiders against deep-seated needs for belonging.
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)