Paula Wheaton (Abby Royle), the daughter of champagne socialists, hopes to find a capitalist-free haven in the Far East. Andrew Baker (Ean Sheehy) is an aspiring writer who's making the trip because he's in love with Paula. Both are in way over their heads. As soon as their plane lands in the airport, their hosts confiscate their passports, sneak them past customs, and drive them along roads forbidden to locals. When they reach their destination, they're asked to record "English practice" tapes with scripts that sound vaguely conspiratorial and to teach closely monitored classes without textbooks. Though Paula chalks it all up to cultural differences, Andrew begins to feel frustrated, angry, and powerless.
Their students are Pearl (Karen Tsen Lee), a painfully shy 19-year-old girl who acts like a child; Xiao Da (Laura Kai Chen), a red-kerchief-wearing model student who passionately believes in the revolution; Sherman (Ron Domingo), the troublemaking, Westernized one who goads the others to buck the system; and Lincoln (Francis Jue), Sherman's basketball-loving friend, who has the same rebellious streak but without the daring. Add one more student and a life-changing day in detention and you have The Breakfast Club: Canton!
To be fair, much of No Foreigners -- the sections of the play that demonstrate what it's like to live in Maoist China -- are harder-hitting than any John Hughes movie. (Pearl and Vice Principal Huang each have poignant monologues about how the government has killed, tortured, and persecuted their friends and family.) Somewhere along the line, however, sentiment compromises the play's social insight. This is especially true when it shifts to the love story of the main characters, which becomes rocky when Andrew discovers corruption in the system. He confronts the people in charge while Paula covers his tracks and apologizes for his behavior.
As the play goes on, it becomes clear that we're meant to relate to Paula's cultural tolerance; but would it be unfair to think of it as complacency? When Andrew criticizes the fact that students are asked to memorize party directives and English words by rote, Paula responds, "It's how they learn, Andrew. For 5000 years." We're meant to regard this as wordly wisdom, but it sounds like bien pensant condescension. Since the play ends in modern-day China, one can't help wondering if either of the characters have any opinions about the country's repeated human rights abuses with Tibetan Buddhists and practitioners of Falun Gong, neither of which are mentioned here.
As always, the Ma-Yi Theatre Company provides excellent production values. Loy Arcenas, who directed the show and designed the set, makes wonderful use of the 45 Below theater's industrial space and gets mostly solid performances from his actors; particularly strong are Laura Kai Chen, Ron Domingo, Francis Jue, and Karen Tsen Lee, all chameleonic in their often-dissimilar roles. Sheehy's Andrew is charming and memorable but Royle's portrayal of Paula seems too naïve, which may primarily be a function of how the character was written.
Twice during the show, we hear the Chinese expression "Inside/outside have difference," which no doubt is catchier in the original Cantonese. On the most basic level, this refers to the fact that Maoist China whitewashed the appearance of the country to foreigners during the Cold War. No Foreigners Beyond This Point could have offered a timely message about the ways in which closed societies present themselves to the outside world -- the sort of thing that has limited our knowledge of Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, for example. Unfortunately, it settles for a less satisfying alternative.