The anxieties of Malcolm, the young man at the heart of Zayd Dohrn’s engaging new comedy of cultural misunderstanding, are not small. Chief among them: that Xiao Mei, the beautiful young woman he has just met at a Beijing nightclub, will reject him once she learns a certain intimate secret.
Malcolm, given an appropriately cringe-making nervousness by Matt Dellapina, has washed up in Beijing to work for an employment company partly run by David, a handsome, slick-suited Chinese guy given just the right amount of bravado by Nelson Lee. The men were roommates at Stanford University, and David is trying to repay Malcolm for kindnesses there by affording him a job with minimal duties and maximal benefits.
At some level Outside People, directed insightfully by Evan Cabnet, could be seen as a kind of geopolitical allegory: the young American dazzled by the rising cocksureness of the Chinese. Apart from a few references to Mao, however, the play is less concerned with the broader political situation than by how class differences inform the suitability of Xiao Mei for Malcolm, who quickly falls in love with her. His attempt to secure a US visa for her provides the evening with its primary strand of plot.
But the abiding subject of Outside People, which runs an interval-less 90 minutes and is a co-production of the Vineyard Theatre and Naked Angels, is English-Chinese language confusion. A similar theme pops up in David Henry Hwang’s current Broadway comedy, Chinglish.
Dohrn’s play evokes sadness better than Hwang’s. Even though both David and Samanya, his Cameroonian girlfriend, translate Chinese phrases for Malcolm, and even though Malcolm and Xiao Mei frequently resort to dictionaries to illuminate their misunderstandings, the near-existential comedy emerges from a growing sense that nobody can ever fully understand anyone else.
By the time we arrive at an argument filled, penultimate scene in which David and Xiao Mei – the heartbreaking Li Jun Li – speak only Chinese, we no longer need the English filter. Dohrn has deftly established the ways that tone – the elusive key for westerners struggling to master Mandarin – can take precedence over meaning. If the bittersweet wrap-up didn’t quite register for me, Outside People remains an affecting study of how love is, at heart, the struggle to establish a common language.