A man hangs in limbo between life and death for 81 hours in "Stuck Elevator."

Based on a harrowing true story, "Stuck Elevator" tries to suck us into a maelstrom of fear and hope for 81 minutes. A bold musical that fuses opera, multimedia and hip-hop, at its best "Stuck" is reminiscent of the work of Rinde Eckert and Robert LePage.

Despite its compelling performances and Byron Au Yong and Aaron Jafferis' haunting score, this innovative piece can't quite sustain emotional force for its full running time. Directed by the noted Chay Yew, "Stuck" is intriguing but flawed in its world premiere at the American Conservatory Theater.

Julius Ahn as Gu¨¡ng, Marie-France Arcilla as M¨ªng and Raymond J. Lee as W¨¢ng Yu¨¨ in Stuck Elevator, playing April 4 ¨C 28, 2013 at A.C.T.’s Geary
Julius Ahn as Gu¨¡ng, Marie-France Arcilla as M¨ªng and Raymond J. Lee as W¨¢ng Yu¨¨ in Stuck Elevator, playing April 4 ¨C 28, 2013 at A.C.T.'s Geary Theater. Photo by Kevin Berne/ACT ( Kevin Berne )

Mostly sung in English with Chinese supertitles, this is the chilling tale of Guang (a moving turn by Julius Ahn) a Chinese immigrant lost in free fall. Seduced by the shot at a big tip, he hurries to deliver Chinese food to a dingy Bronx apartment building, but he gets waylaid by fate. The elevator breaks down while he is inside, plunging many stomach-churning floors before coming to rest somewhere in purgatory.

The doors do not open. Guang pushes the alarm, to no avail. There is an intercom, but he is too scared to use it. He's an undocumented immigrant, and he must avoid getting caught at all costs -- not even to save his life.

So he waits. And waits. For 81 hours.

It's a terrifying scenario boldly envisioned by Daniel Ostling's spare set design, a steel box framed by the looming walls of the elevator shaft. Kate Freer's surreal projections dance along the walls of the elevator that becomes Guang's cage.

Yew evokes a palpable sense of claustrophobia, the fear and dread that plague Guang from start to finish. Surviving on fortune cookies and soy sauce packets, he takes comfort in the fact that life outside the elevator is almost as harsh as it is inside. He sings of his desperately low expectations in the wistful "At Least It's Quiet" and "It Could Be Worse."

Perhaps the most tragic thing is that Guang was trapped long before he got stuck in that elevator.

After leaving China, where his wife (Marie-France Arcilla) and son (Raymond J. Lee) remain, Guang has found himself a man imprisoned by fate. He slaves away as a delivery man in the Bronx for a pittance. He is dying to bring his family to America, but that may never happen because he still owes $80,000 to the smuggler (Lee again) who sneaked him into the country. The memory of that bleak journey will never leave him.

Yong and Jafferis beautifully evoke the horror of Guang's plight through the score, which travels from the euphoria of "Holla" to the nausea of "Shame." But "Stuck" often leaves the confines of the elevator behind to explore other aspects of Guang's life, and that's where the show falters. Yew doesn't successfully navigate the jarring shifts in tone here.

As Guang's mind cracks, he imagines himself in a series of absurd vignettes that undermine the impact of the rest of the show. Scenes involving a gaudy Atlantic City, N.J., revue and a wrestling bout between an alien robot and a giant fortune cookie come out of nowhere. The hip-hop riffs spun by Guang's buddy Marco (an electric Joel Perez) pop with wit, but they also distract from Guang's saga.

These episodes undercut the constricted nature of the set and divert attention from the most compelling points of the narrative. If more time were spent exploring Guang's sense of grief and loss, "Stuck" would pierce the heart more deeply.

Contact Karen D'Souza at 408-271-3772. Read her at www.mercurynews.com/karen-dsouza, follow her at Twitter.com/KarenDSouza4 and like her at Facebook.com/Dsouzatheaterpage.

'STUCK ELEVATOR'

Music by Byron Au Yong, libretto by Aaron Jafferis

Through: April 28
Where: American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St. San Francisco
Running time: 1 hour,
21 minutes (no intermission)
Tickets: $20-$95 (subject to change), 415-749-2228, www.act-sf.org