You can't help but compare Zayd Dohrn's Off-Broadway play "Outside People" with David Henry Hwang's "Chinglish," now running on Broadway. While both plays take place in China, have similar characters and tackle the theme of culture shock, their approaches are quite different.
Although "Outside People" is not as funny as "Chinglish," it makes for a more absorbing and mysterious journey.
Each is a comedic drama about an American guy visiting China for the first time, where he attempts to navigate a tricky sexual relationship with a local woman. Portions of both plays are performed in Chinese, although "Chinglish" offers English supertitles.
In "Chinglish," a broke businessman (Gary Wilmes) visits a Chinese province in hopes of winning a manufacturing contract that could revive his company back home. The show works best as a farce, emphasizing the difficulties of translating from English to Chinese, even with the aid of translators.
"Outside People" is comparatively leaner, with just four characters and a running time of 90 minutes. It focuses on Malcolm (Matthew Dellapina), a depressed young slacker who goes to Beijing to visit his laid-back but competitive Chinese friend Da Wei (Nelson Lee), whom he met in college.
Once there, Malcolm is easily and improbably able to sleep with Xiao Mei (Li Jun Li), a gorgeous Chinese girl who grew up as a peasant. Each understands just a little of the other's language. When Malcolm decides to take her with him to the United States, Da Wei tries to convince him that Xiao Mei is only using him to leave China.
"Outside People" does have a very funny scene where Malcolm tries in vain to explain to Xiao Mei that he has a sexually transmitted disease. But as staged on an intimate scale by Evan Cabnet, the play mainly emphasizes character ambiguities instead of laughs.
The acting is quite convincing, especially Li Jun Li, whose sweetness and sincerity further obscures the question of whether Xiao Mei has an ulterior motive or not.
If you go: "Outside People" plays at the Vineyard Theatre through Jan. 29. 108 E. 15th St., 212-353-0303, vineyardtheatre.org.