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theatre review

Paul Sun-Hyung Lee and Evan Buliung star in the Canstage production of Chimerica.Dylan Hewlett

Every couple of years, a drama comes along that absolutely captivates theatre critics in England but leaves their counterparts in the United States cold. Eventually, the drama makes it to Canada and the critics here get to play that favourite, self-regarding Canadian role: the honest broker.

Lucy Kirkwood's Chimerica, a play, itself, about ideals and values in international relations and how they get lost in translation, is the latest. It is now on display in a stunning, big-budget, alternatingly exhilarating and exhausting production, directed by Chris Abraham at Canadian Stage in Toronto, following a run at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre.

The 2013 play follows two individuals whose lives were irrevocably changed in 1989 at the Tiananmen Square protests. One is American: Conflict photographer Joe Schofield (Evan Buliung), who, in Kirkwood's play anyway, was the one to snap the iconic image of a lone man bravely stepping in front of a tank, shopping bags in his hands. The other is Chinese: Zhang Lin (Paul Sun-Hyung Lee), who was one of the students in the square and is now a widower who drinks and sulks in his apartment when he's not out teaching English.

On a 2012 return to Beijing to work on a story about American outsourcing, Joe is shocked when his friend/source Zhang Lin lets it drop that he knows the man in the famous photo – and that he may be in New York. Teaming up with a writer named Mel (Doug McKeag), Joe sets to work trying to track down the Tankman today.

During the play's first half, I found myself entirely siding with the American critical point of view of Kirkwood's play. While Zhang Lin's story is quiet and affecting, thanks to a soulful performance by Lee (of Kim's Convenience fame), it is very static – largely consisting of him typing his recollections from 1989 into a laptop.

At the same time, Joe's quest is written in short, bland scenes at bodegas and strip clubs, filled with stereotypes and unwieldy accents that led me to believe Kirkwood's understanding of New York comes largely from watching old reruns of Law and Order. Dun-dun.

If you're expecting anything approaching the sort of pitch-perfect portrayal of journalists found in the Oscar-winning film Spotlight, you will be sorely disappointed by the hackneyed ulcers-and-alcohol depiction found here.

And with Joe a lone wolf with no strings to tie him down (or humanize him), it's up to Buliung single-handedly to tie this half of the narrative together – but his performance is entirely too soft, too low-key and, dare I say it, too Canadian. He adds to the hazy, aimlessness of the proceedings.

But then, a shift. After intermission, Chimerica comes alive – and I found myself coming around to the British point of view.

Zhang Lin's story picks up as the spirit of protest returns in response to the choking smog that Chinese officials dismiss as "fog." Lee is allowed to be more than silently compelling, and has an excellent scene partner in Richard Lee – playing his brother, who has traded dreams of democracy for those of economic prosperity. They have a relationship to invest in and care about – and after the plot takes a couple of brilliant twists and turns, Kirkwood's play finds its way to a surprising and moving conclusion.

That's not to say that I ever really embraced the action in America. A love story of sorts buds between Buliung's war photographer and Tessa (Laura Condlln), a British marketer specializing in contemporary Chinese commerce, but the two have zero chemistry.

And yet, Kirkwood's script is at its satirical best in America – pointing out that the declining superpower's relationship with China is a symbiotic one, and revelling in pointing out the hypocrisy in America's values.

While a Yankee legislator lectures about privacy and rights, a Silicon Valley executive quietly passes on confidential details about a dissident's IP address to the Chinese government. American ideals about individualism, meanwhile, are contrasted with Tessa's division of the population down into seven categories of consumers.

Amid the backdrop of the 2012 presidential election, American democracy is depicted as part sham, part spectacle – and a newspaper editor (Ross McMillan, enjoyably bizarre) rails against the masses in the form of a screed against comments on his website. (This produced a cheer from the opening-night audience!) Would that China got an equally sophisticated dissection.

Kirkwood's sweeping script gets a sweeping production from Abraham working with a cast of 12. Judith Bowden's set spins us from location to location, sometimes cutting off a scene that is yet to be finished. Often this is a relief, because Abraham's interstitial staging, Deco Dawson's wham-bam video projections and Thomas Ryder Payne's shocking sound design offer us the excitement – and often context – absent from a script that may have plenty of great ideas and a neat twist, but is undermined by the playwright's reliance on cliche characterizations and transatlantic tropes.

Chimerica (canadianstage.com) continues to April 17.

Editor's Note: The original newspaper version and an earlier online version of this article incorrectly said Kevin Klassen portrayed the editor. In fact, it was Ross McMillan. This online version has been corrected.