Volume 75, Number 20 | October 05 - 11, 2005

Playwright turns work abroad into thought-provoking hit back home

By Jerry Tallmer

Photo Courtesy Warren Leight
Warren Leight based “No Foreigners Beyond This Point” upon his own experiences in post-Cultural Revolution China
Warren Leight glanced at the front page of that day’s New York Times, where a four-column picture topped Joseph Kahn’s story about Qin Yahong, a 35-year-old steel-mill worker in Henan Province, China, who, after three days and nights of torture by the police, had confessed to a rape and murder he did not commit, crimes for which he was condemned to death.

“I saw that article,” Leight said. “The shocking thing is that when they found out he was innocent, they were going to kill him anyway, to save face. Nothing would surprise me about how things work there,” added the much-younger-seeming, 48-year-old Tony-winning playwright.

His recall of how things work and do not work there stem from his nine months in China as a teacher of spoken English in 1980, hard on the heels of the chaos and brutality of the “lost decade”—Mao’s (more yet, Mme. Mao’s) “Great Cultural Revolution.” The experience provides the marrow of “No Foreigners Beyond This Point,” Leight’s richly enjoyable, deeply disconcerting new play about two Americans who go to China to teach English in the years following the Great Leap Backward. The Ma-Yi Theater Company production is at 45 Bleecker Street through October 16, maybe longer.

Warren Leight glanced again at the newspaper lying before him. “The longer I stayed there, the less I understood. But I was infuriated by the people who came for three days and would write: ‘China is smiling again.’ The play is darker now than it used to be,” its author said. “I went back and clarified a lot.”

He also gave the character Xiao Wan, a childlike 19-year-old, a joke about a flock of ducks who take a “long march,” just like the famous 1930s Long March of Mao Tse-tung’s forces to escape annihilation by the armies of Chiang Kai-shek.

“Every night three people laugh,” said playwright Leight. “Sunday night a Chinese woman was doubled over, laughing. I decided not to kill her off” – little Xiao Wan. “I do enough of that on ‘Law & Order.’ ”

Leight has been one of the writers of TV’s “Law & Order” and now of “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” for the past four years. (“My first steady job,” he says.) He lost both his parents during the past two years. “I was hemorrhaging money with the elder care. It was the perfect moment to go inside.”

Spoken as a true outsider.

What had helped him squirrel his way inside was a Pulitzer nomination and the Tony Award for “Side Man” (Best Play, 1999), a subtle, moving drama about the dysfunctional family of a dysfunctional jazz trumpeter much like Warren’s own father, Donald Leight, “who played with Woody Herman and everyone else you ever heard of.”

That father, says the son, was of Russian-Ukrainian-Jewish extraction “but of the generation that got here and wasn’t. My mother’s people were southern Italian. I was raised Unitarian. So I’m a mutt.”

Born in Queens, January 17, 1957, the mutt grew up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and went to the Fieldston School, then to Stanford in California.

“I had one renowned China expert at Stanford,” Leight says dryly, “who talked of the Cultural Revolution as ‘a great social experiment.’

“The fact is, there had been a holocaust there, and no one outside China really knew the dimensions of it.”

It wasn’t the renowned China expert who would inspire 23-year-old Warren Leight to go to China.

“What took me there? The glib answer is there was a girl at high school … I had a crush on her … I ran into her … I was freelancing, and she was applying for a teaching job in China. That sounded interesting. And a writer is supposed to have experiences.”

In fact, in the play, Americans Andrew and Paula are lovers of a sort, though a fairly complicated sort – meaning that they sleep together, but …

It was an experience that was a little rough on Leight’s health and welfare, as it was on the play’s Andrew. “When I came back I weighed 53 pounds less than I do now.” (He now weighs 165.)

What did you eat, Warren?

“Rice. And more rice.”

The play was commissioned three years ago by Baltimore’s Center Stage. “They said: ‘What would you like to write a play about?’ I said: ‘Well, there’s this, and this, and China’ – and their artistic director said: ‘My father was in China in World War II. That’s the play I want.’ My jaw dropped.”

No, he doesn’t care to say any more about the real-life girl he went to China with. “She might prefer her privacy be kept beyond that point.” Afterthought: “There’s no word in China for privacy.” And no, he doesn’t wish to say anything about his present “very lovely” girlfriend. “She’s a civilian [i.e., not of the theater]. Leave her alone.”

And no, he’s never been back to China. But does he want to?

“I’d like to. I don’t know how this play will affect my chances. What would be fantastic is if they’d let me go back with the play.”

Who knows? In the land where, as Andrew learns, yes means no and no means maybe, even that long march could happen.

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