BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
OFF BROADWAY REVIEW
A new play premiering on Tuesday at Vineyard Theatre, “Outside People” has the major disadvantage of opening in the same season as David Henry Hwang’s delightful “Chinglish,” which relates a similar story but develops it in far more complex and satisfying ways.
Both plays regard an American businessman visiting modern-day China and falling in love with a Chinese woman while dealing badly with significant cultural and linguistic differences.
In the case of playwright Zayd Dohrn’s new drama, Malcolm (Matt Dellapina) isn’t really a man of business but rather an at-loose-ends wonk hired by his former college roomie David (Nelson Lee) as kindly payback for showing him the ropes on campus.
A successful entrepreneur in Beijing, David provides Malcolm with the lovely Xiao Mei (Li Jun Li) as an interpreter. The affair that soon flowers between Malcolm and Xiao Mei turns rocky when he begins to suspect that she has ulterior motives.
The key problem with “Outside People” is that none of the play’s characters are sufficiently drawn for viewers to comprehend, let alone appreciate, their actions. The best developed figure is Malcolm, but he is an indecisive, apologetic individual whose anxious ways grow tiresome in spite of Dellapina’s sympathetic portrayal.
Director Evan Cabnet obtains able performances that help to animate these sketchy people. Dellapina’s scruffy Malcolm contrasts against Lee’s sleek David while Li lends Xiao Mei an appealing sweetness. Sonequa Martin-Green confidently gives an incisive account of David’s smart girlfriend Samanaya.
A joint effort by Vineyard Theater with Naked Angels, the production at least looks good. Takeshi Kata’s settings for several Beijing interiors are fluent and handsome. Ben Stanton’s lighting seems rather harsh in the bedroom scenes (or was that the director’s intention?). Jessica Wegener Shay’s contemporary clothes also help to dress out what the playwright fails to provide.
“Outside People” continues through Jan. 29 at Vineyard Theatre, 108 E. 15th St., New York. Call (212) 353-0303 or visit www.vineyardtheatre.org.