- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 14, 2002

Many an idealistic Yank has dreamed of teaching English in a foreign country. Ah, the Pearl S. Buck, "The King and I," "The Corn is Green" romanticism of it all.
The reality is much different, as anyone can tell you who has taught English as a second language. Usually, the teacher winds up with much more of an education than the students. The ruefulness and wonder of this reality is mined beautifully in Warren Leight's ("Side Man") new play, "No Foreigners Beyond This Point."
"No Foreigners" is based on Mr. Leight's own experience teaching English in the remote Da Lang Province of China for eight months in 1980. Eight years after President Nixon's 1972 visit reopened talks with China, detente had not reached the entire country, so many Chinese had never seen a foreign face. In fact, American teachers were described as "foreign devils," a term, the main character notes, that is not used in a pejorative sense.
Andrew Baker (Ean Sheehy) stands in for the playwright in this work. As narrator, he reflects on the experience 20-some years later and participates in the extended flashbacks. Andrew is wonderfully human he signs up to teach in China not because he wants to benefit his fellow man, but because he needs to impress Paula Wheaton (Carrie Preston), a young woman who comes from a long line of activists.
Paula wants to make a difference. Andrew wants to make time with Paula. So off the wide-open innocents go to a Chinese province where the only communication with the outside world is through Voice of America, where sleeping under mosquito netting is a necessity and where the bureaucratic red tape is longer and more labyrinthine than the Great Wall of China. Drop-kicked into another world, as Andrew describes it, they cling to each other, first as co-adventurers and then as lovers.
The business school where they teach is a spare cinder-block building full of students eager not only to learn English, but finally to express themselves after decades of oppression and torture. Andrew and Paula's most onerous task is not teaching syntax, but breaking through the students' fear that everything they say can and will be used against them.
The students (vividly played by Andy Pang, John Woo Taak Kwon, Nancy Wu, Jane Wong and Les J.N. Mau) are not paranoid. Everything that is said in the classroom and beyond is reported dutifully to Principal Wang (Ben Wang), who uses the information to keep Andrew and Paula in their places. Information is currency in this village; every scrap of gossip or reportage is valuable either for trade or for bribery.
The two Americans arrive thinking they are going to revolutionize the place. Instead, they are humbled when they realize they first must crack the code of the Chinese culture before any change can come about. They learn that accepting a compliment is considered rude and that when Principal Wang and the other bureaucrats say "it would be more convenient if " what that means, loosely translated, is, "It will happen when pigs fly."
Andrew rails against the system, acutely feeling the paranoia, the spying and the isolation. He came to China for the experience, but this is not what he had in mind. The only time he seems to soar is when he and the students indulge in some playground basketball, when in the heat of competition the students can talk jive and be themselves.
Ironically, it is Andrew who picks up the language faster, maybe because Paula is trying so achingly hard. She came to China to give and also to find out whether this is the right way for her to change the world. Andrew is there to take. What does that say about the intimacies of their relationship?
The love story is the least convincing and absorbing aspect of "No Foreigners" because the vignette style of the work gives the actors little help to develop an emotional connection. You think they are lovers out of loneliness or convenience rather than anything high-minded, so the declarations of love and devotion that come at the end are a bit of a surprise.
Far more successful and enduring are the scenes devoted to the Chinese students and faculty. It is fascinating to watch the Americans' head-on, "honest" approach to communication clash head-on with the Chinese way of discreetly dispensing or withholding information.
The Americans are thought of as exotic commodities to be handled carefully and slowly. It is quietly funny to see Paula and Andrew, eager to open up and let it all hang out with their students and the school administration. Witness, for example, Paula's painful efforts to befriend Teacher Chen (Jane Wong) and the Chinese responding with fear and desperation to guard and be unguarded.
There is a lovely moment, somewhat cliched, when the two parties learn to communicate nonverbally. At a feast for the harvest moon, the ice is broken over champagne, and then a waltz comes over the radio. Everyone dances together, Teacher Chen relaxing her reserve and revealing a bit about herself in Paula's arms. While the music lasts, the barriers vanish.
This is what "No Foreigners" does best express the isolation of both the Chinese and the Americans. Both Andrew and Paula speak of how hard it was adjust to the noise and distractions of America after being in provincial China.
Likewise, director Tim Vasen has done away with extraneous sound effects, music and other stage business. This is a play about solitude and quiet about confronting the still parts inside yourself and Mr. Vasen reflects that in a production striking in its lack of distraction. He and set designer Christine Jones create a serene, contemplative place where the words and the acting can just breathe. The pacing is discordant and disorienting at times, similar to the experience of a stranger in a strange land.
The acting style furthers the theme of isolation, with performances especially by the Asian cast that are clean and uncluttered. It is hard sometimes to get a read on Mr. Sheehy's character of Andrew, but that may be because he is a narrator, autobiographical and somehow unfinished. Far more solid and real is Miss Preston as Paula, a young woman who is searching and confused but trying anyway.
"No Foreigners Beyond This Point" is not a perfect play the love story needs to be either drawn satisfactorily or left out altogether, and we need to know exactly what motivations Andrew has beyond impressing a girl. Still, the glimpse into China in 1980, when many people were caught between suppression and modernity, engages you in ways you might not expect.

***
WHAT: "No Foreigners Beyond This Point" by Warren Leight
WHEN: Tuesday through Saturday, 8 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday matinees, 2 p.m.; Sunday, 7:30 p.m., through Dec. 22
WHERE: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St., Baltimore
TICKETS: $10 to $50. Call 410/332-0033
MAXIMUM RATING FOUR STARS

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