Internationally known playwright Zhu Yi has given New Yorkers a gift with A Deal, which opened at Urban Stages last night. On its surface, the piece tells the story of one Chinese family’s attempt to buy into the Manhattan real-estate market as a major step towards providing their daughter with the complete American Dream. But this rich work has multiple layers and is by turns wonderfully thought-provoking, deeply troubling and oddly funny.
For most of its 100 minute runtime, the play follows two tracks. Li Su is a recent Columbia University MFA graduate vigorously pursing an acting career in New York City. Her chosen profession necessitates that she be judged by how she looks, which regrettably for Asian talent is usually limiting and consequently frustrating. Around the time of her first big break, her parents arrive from China. They are proud Communists who made a small fortune which they want to invest it in the USA. Early on in the plot, these two are reunited with Mrs. Li’s former beau Peter who has become an American citizen. This set-up provides Zhu Yi with ample opportunities to skillfully explore emotional conflicts stemming from stereotypes, ideology, and national pride. None of these people is particularly likable, but each is admirable for a different reason.
Like her character, Taiwanese actress Wei-Yi Lin is making her off-Broadway debut as Li Su. She is strident at times, though that may be a deliberate artistic decision meant to reinforce her alter-ego’s tenacity. Alan Ariano and Lydia Gaston bring depth and passion to their proud parental fishes out of water. Pun Bandhu— playing multiple parts here as he did in The Treasurer — provides Peter with equal parts sweetness and cunning. Seth Moore seems genuine as a writer, (perhaps because he is one.) Unfortunately Helen Coxe doesn’t provide enough distinction between her roles as a con artist, talk show host, receptionist and others causing slight confusion for those around me.
The entire creative team is strong and obviously united in their vision. Director John Giampietro makes remarkable use of the small stage, most admirably in a beautifully choreographed fight scene. The simple light-weight set by Frank J. Oliva is brought to vivid life by Ryan Belock’s exceptionally artful projections. Audrey Nauman gives each of the characters their perfect wrapping, from Mrs. Li’s coordinated suits to Su’s darling babydoll dresses.
A Deal is a delightful departure from the limited world view that sometimes plagues commercial theater. Zhu Yi is a fresh and intelligent voice well-matched to the mission of Urban Stages to promote writers of diverse backgrounds. Tickets (only $35 for full price) are available through December 10 at www.urbanstages.org. Intriguing talkback sessions follow the performance on November 27, November 30 and December 4. As an interesting side note, the piece delivered in Mandarin will simultaneously be touring throughout China. I greatly look forward to reading the reviews from there.