Matthew Dellapina and Li Jun Li
in Outside People
(© Carol Rosegg)
Matthew Dellapina and Li Jun Li
in Outside People
(© Carol Rosegg)
It's inevitable that Zayd Dohrn's engaging but imperfect play, Outside People, making its world premiere at the Vineyard Theatre, will be compared to David Henry Hwang's Chinglish, currently on Broadway.

Both works are set in China, with a combination of English and Mandarin spoken. In both, a white American man has to navigate the complexity of business relationships -- where the concept of "guanxi" (roughly translated as "connections") is of primary importance -- as well as romantic possibilities in which difficulties in communication cause some rather fundamental misunderstandings. But whereas Hwang's play is an enjoyable comedy, Dohrn's is more of a melodrama that sometimes strains credulity.

Outside People tracks the journey of Malcolm (Matt Dellapina), who has come to Beijing on the invitation of his former college roommate, Da Wei "David" Wang (Nelson Lee). David introduces Malcolm to Xiao Mei (Li Jun Li), who becomes both his lover and language instructor.

Dellapina has a charming underdog quality that is appropriate, and he has good chemistry with Li, making their characters' relationship believable. For her part, Li is likable enough, but could show more layers in her performance to flesh out her role. This is not entirely her fault, as the script deliberately obfuscates Xiao Mei's motivations. In fact, the only time we hear her verbally declare how she feels about Malcolm is in a scene presented entirely in Mandarin, and to which there are no subtitles to translate for what I would guess is the majority of the audience who doesn't speak the language.

Lee's David radiates charisma, and almost always has something going on underneath his surface portrayal that makes the reasons for doing what he does in the play both maddeningly ambiguous and dramatically compelling. Rounding out the cast is Sonequa Martin-Green, who makes a strong impression as David's girlfriend, Samanya, who was born in Cameroon, but raised in China.

There are some funny scenes in the play, including a painfully awkward conversation that Malcolm tries to initiate prior to his first sexual encounter with Xiao Mei. He eventually resorts to calling up David to act as translator.

But there's also a more serious examination of class differences within China, particularly in the wealthy David's condescending and at times downright hostile view of Xiao Mei, who grew up poor. He suggests that she is fundamentally incompatible with Malcolm due to their differing backgrounds, and warns his friend about getting too attached. Whether or not he is right, and whether or not Malcolm takes his advice, are the plot points upon which the play is built.

Unfortunately, the show occasionally feels overly contrived. Part of the problem is that Dohrn drops in chunks of exposition that substitute for character development. In one such instance, Xiao Mei reads aloud from an essay she created to practice her English, but the details contained in the passage are much more personally revealing than the assignment requires, and also seem a bit out of character for her to state so baldly.

More successful is the playwright's development of his titular metaphor, which not only references the business that David runs in Beijing, where he is responsible for hiring migrant worker labor, but also the ways that the play's four characters are all also outsiders in some way or another.