Americans have blundered abroad ever since there was an America. And recent theater seasons have seen a fertile crop—maybe even a sub-genre—of new plays that look askance at Yanks who misunderstand foreign cultures (and discover that they too can be misunderstood). Anne Washburn’s The Internationalist and David Henry Hwang’s Chinglish come to mind—not to mention The Book of Mormon.
Outside People, Zayd Dohrn’s dark comedy now at the Vineyard, lands securely on this growing list. He carefully unpacks his tale—efficiently directed by Evan Cabnet—following Malcolm (Matt Dellapina), a dumpy, underemployed Stanford grad, from his arrival in Beijing through a romance shadowed with cultural tension and psychological ambiguity.
The play could have drawn some sharp observations about the unsettling political realities underlying America’s courtship of China, but Dohrn sketches his characters too broadly. Malcolm remains so relentlessly neurotic and consistently ignorant that it’s hard to invest in his dilemmas. Da Wei (Nelson Lee), Malcolm’s old college buddy, is a pure rake, and his girlfriend Samanya (Sonequa Martin-Green) is blandly cosmopolitan. Only Malcolm’s lover, the cautiously ardent Xiao Mei (Li Jun Li), holds unknown qualities, and Dohrn wants to leave us guessing—like the smitten Malcolm—at her motives and authenticity right up to the end. But even with the language barriers thrown in our way (a crucial scene is played in untranslated Mandarin), there’s little doubt that ugly Americans make big mistakes—in Outside People, the only question is what kind.