By ERIC GRODE
Theatre is full of men and women mystified, rattled, and even paralyzed by alien surroundings. From Agamemnon to Blanche DuBois, from Nick and Honey to Vladimir and Estragon, plays frequently pivot on the actions (or inactions) that come with being entirely out of one's element.
Matthew Dellapina drew from a source a little closer to home when he created Malcolm, the self-reproaching protagonist of Zayd Dohrn's bittersweet new drama, Outside People, which opens Jan. 10 at the Vineyard Theatre.
"He's sort of like George Costanza with the Yankees: 'What do I do here?'" Dellapina says of his character, a disenchanted New Jerseyite who finds himself navigating a fraught romance while taking on a vaguely defined job in China. "He's just so ill at ease. I feel like Malcolm's a guy without a lot of foresight."
Dellapina, 31, has been making a name for himself through his work with such acclaimed downtown troupes as the Civilians and Waterwell, whose productions rely on unorthodox structures. At the same time, however, he has found success with straightforward pieces. Last year, he teamed up with director Evan Cabnet on the acclaimed Roundabout drama The Dream of the Burning Boy, and Cabnet asked him to audition for Malcolm, an anxious American who stumbles into love after following an old Stanford classmate to China.
Neurotic, fidgety, verbal, eager to discuss his herpes, Malcolm hardly fits the stereotype of American swagger. And while the Outside People company's research was confined largely to an afternoon of dim sum in Chinatown, Dellapina decided to explore the pharmaceutical effects of traveling, since Malcolm's end table overflows with pill bottles. "[I researched] how someone with this level of anxiety would experience a foreign country and how that would manifest," he says.
Malcolm ends up swapping language lessons and much more with Xiao Mei, a young woman from a remote Chinese village who's been employed by Malcolm's old classmate. Dellapina feels the language barrier manages to mitigate or at least obscure Malcolm's neuroses. "That's the saving grace of Xiao Mei," he says. "She doesn't indulge him, in part because she doesn't get him."
American playwrights have been trying to "get" China in a big way recently, with authors as disparate as Mike Daisey (The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs) and David Henry Hwang (Chinglish) joining Dohrn in exploring the human cost of U.S.-China relationships.
"We're in this sort of emotional and economic trough right now, and we're all looking for upticks," Dellapina says. "And Evan kept talking in rehearsal about how China is doing an exponentially better job right now of being what America has been for the last several decades. When we look at China, we're looking ahead, but at the same time, we're sort of looking at the past, at our past."
Eric Grode is the author of "Hair: The Story of the Show That Defined a Generation" (Running Press)