In the land of been-there-seen-that theater, surprises are generally welcome. Just not the kind of phoney, irrational shockers that make you scratch your head and go “Huh?” “Outside People,” Zayd Dohrn’s new play about an American guy out of his cultural depth in Beijing, is loaded with these illogical flares. This being a joint production of Naked Angels and the Vineyard, production values are slick and shiny, but not to the point of camouflaging all the absurdities of plot and inanities of character.
On the promise of a job in the company owned by his Chinese college roommate at Stanford, Dohrn’s clueless hero, Malcolm (Matt Dellapina), lands in Beijing without a rudimentary knowledge of Chinese or the slightest notion of what his job will be. (Huh?) He didn’t even pack a clean shirt to wear to the upscale club where his friend has lined up a couple of party girls. (Huh?)
The design team of Takeshi Kata (sets), Jill BC DuBoff (sound) and especially Ben Stanton (lighting) have put a lot of pizzazz into the sleek modern settings (social club, restaurant, business office, etc.) where Malcolm’s high-powered friend, Da Wei (who calls himself David and is played with frightening energy by Nelson Lee), and his gorgeous girlfriend, Samanya (the stunningly self-possessed Sonequa Martin-Green), are entirely at ease. Bold applications of neon and industrial steel do wonders with traditional Chinese motifs like silk screens and paper lanterns.
Which leaves no room for style when it comes to the sterile Western-style hotel room where Malcolm, who has fallen in love with his pretty, modest language teacher, Xiao Mei (played with sweetness and charm by Li Jun Li), spends most of his stage time. Or maybe the point is that yang guizi (foreign devils) have no style.
No brains, either, judging from Dohrn’s treatment of Malcolm.
David Henry Hwang got away with it in “Chinglish,” so Dohrn can surely be cut some slack for the ease with which Malcolm and Xiao Mei fall into a meaningful relationship when neither one of them can understand much of what the other one is saying. But the depths of Malcolm’s political and cultural ignorance (and the attendant lack of intellectual curiosity that scribe unconvincingly tries to pass off as American naivete) is the opposite of endearing.
A certain degree of culture shock is understandable. But after some ill-defined passage of time (months, surely), Malcolm is still the boob he was when he landed. Somehow, it hasn’t dawned on him that David is running a sweatshop operation and exploiting the migrant workers (“coolies” and “slaves”) under his despotic thumb. (Huh?) And would you believe that this jerk-off is making paper airplanes at his fancy desk because he still hasn’t figured out what he’s been hired for? (Huh?)
According to David, the cushy non-job is Malcolm’s reward for treating him like a human being when he landed in the States “feeling like Charlie Chan.” But from Dohrn’s ruthless description of David, that sentimental explanation is as much a “Huh?” moment as anything in the play.
More plausible by far is the dark side of David’s character, which Lee plays with the lethal snap of a live power line. Although hardly a subtle character study, his contradictions are fascinating and there’s real dynamic tension to his ferocious self-loathing and his equally fierce denial of who he is — or was — and the monster he’s become.
The only real question is why such a live wire would waste his time on a wet noodle like Malcolm.