California high-schooler Manford is a genius at basketball. He’s even better at impatience. When we meet him, in director Jennifer Chang’s gripping production of Lauren Yee’s “The Great Leap” at Round House Theatre, the teenager is feverishly pressuring a university basketball coach to make a fast decision. Legs braced, as if for a heavy lift, Manford flicks through index cards jotted with talking points, his words helter-skelter, a hand gesturing frenetically when language seems too slow. The coach, Saul, who’s never seen the kid before, looks on, flummoxed: Who accosts a stranger in this way?
On the other side of the globe, meanwhile, Chinese basketball coach Wen Chang excels at patience. The Beijing resident survived the Cultural Revolution by keeping his head down — a habit that makes him all the more alarmed as the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests ramp up.
In scenes whose snappy banter is deepened by the pain the characters are trying to forget, “The Great Leap” artfully and movingly explores the connections between Manford, Saul and Wen Chang. Along the way, it examines culture clash; alludes to modern Chinese history; and ponders the costs of caution and courage, patience and impatience. Perhaps as important, the play is a delectable opportunity to spend time with Yee’s vivid, idiosyncratic, scarred and funny characters, interpreted at Round House by an excellent cast.
Exuding scrappy teenage urgency, Randy Nguyen Ta is hugely appealing as Manford, who often disregards the advice of his older cousin Connie (Lois Shih). When the University of San Francisco basketball team schedules a friendship game in Beijing in 1989, Manford, who is Chinese American, badgers his way onto the roster.
The personal stakes are high. Same goes for Saul (Eric Hissom), a profane, run-to-seed athletic also-ran, who desperately needs a win. If Saul can score that win in view of Wen Chang (Grant Chang), his protege in the 1970s, that will be a plus.
The play flashes back and forth in time, allowing Hissom and Chang to show how their characters change over the years. Chang is particularly brilliant at this: The 1970s Wen Chang is endearingly, and hilariously, baffled at Saul’s swagger and unrelenting obscenities. The 1989 Wen Chang is the same person, evolved — now authoritative, knowing, cynical and intense. You can see the confidence the years have brought, and the toll they have taken.
Basketball draws most of these characters together, but “The Great Leap” requires no knowledge of — or interest in — that sport. The scenes include no game sequences, although a few ball-on-court and noisy-spectator effects in Roc Lee’s sound design add context and atmosphere.
Splayed across Tony Cisek’s stylish abstract set, the projections co-designed by Jason H. Thompson and Kaitlyn Pietras — a stylized Bay Area streetscape, historic-style photos — help the action vault between decades and continents. That movement continues to a final reveal that casts the characters’ sharp shadows onto history.
The Great Leap, by Lauren Yee. Directed by Jennifer Chang; costume designer, Helen Q. Huang; lighting, Minjoo Kim. Two hours. In person through Dec. 5 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Hwy., Bethesda. Streams on demand Nov. 26-Dec. 19, with streaming tickets available through Dec. 5. $55-$78 (in person); $32.50 (streaming). roundhousetheatre.org.