Monday, October 29, 2018

110 (2018-2019): Review: INDIA PALE ALE (seen October 28, 2018)

“Yo, Ho, Ho, and a Bottle of Ale”

Sometimes the events portrayed in a play and the events of daily life coincide with such unexpected emotional velocity that their confluence affects a theatregoer more powerfully than the play alone might have done. 

Shazi Raja. Photo: Joan Marcus.
That’s what happened to me on December 8, 1980, when, hours after John Lennon’s murder, I saw David Rimmer’s Album, a play in which the music of the Beatles has a crucial role. And it happened yesterday, October 28, 2018, a day after the massacre of Jewish worshipers in their Pittsburgh synagogue, when I attended the Manhattan Theatre Club's production of Jaclyn Backhaus’s India Pale Ale. In this uneven but heartwarming drama about Punjabi-Americans, a major plot point is the massacre of Sikh worshipers in their Wisconsin temple (obviously based on an actual 2012 occurrence).

At the play’s conclusion, Deepa (Purva Bedi), mother of two of the leading characters, makes a speech directly to us—it’s already in the script and not added because of its topicality. In it, after pointing to the hatred so many feel toward those of other cultures, she begs for the unity we should feel as fellow Americans, asking repeatedly, “What has to change?” For example, “what has to change among us all so we may grow and learn from each other without tearing each other apart?”
Shazi Raja, Purva Bedi. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Ordinarily, I’d have considered the speech extraneous, since its point should have been clear from the play itself. As the sniffling (mine included) all around testified, her words couldn’t have been more pertinent, even if preached to the New York choir. Obviously, from the moment the bloody news is delivered on stage, many heads in the theatre began pondering if the show would somehow acknowledge what happened in Pittsburgh.
Purva Bedi, Shazi Raja, Angel Desai. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The question was successfully answered during the curtain call when a cast member stepped forward to commemorate Pittsburgh by reading the names of all the victims. Talk about there not being a dry eye in the house! But that wasn’t all, the actors—as per the script—then proceeded into the aisles to distribute warm, freshly made samosas to every member of the audience, bridging cultural divides as only delicious food can.

The play itself, for all its occasional charms, will remain memorable more for the occasion of its performance than for its contribution to dramatic literature. India Pale Ale, named for an actual hoppy beer style, takes place in Raymond, WI; a Madison, WI, dive bar; and, in extravagantly bright and fantastical pirate costumes (Arnulfo Maldonado, outdoing himself), aboard a pirate ship sailing between Essex, England, and Calcutta in 1823. Each is managed on a spare setting created by Neil Patel, and creatively lit by Ben Stanton, with a floor of wood planking fitted with multiple trap doors.
Sathya Sridharan, Lipica Shah. Photo: Joan Marcus.
A high-energy blend of heightened realism and bold fantasy, India Pale Ale concerns the Batras, a family of first- and second-generation Punjabi-descended Sikhs living in the Midwest. When the play begins they’re in the langar (feasting) hall of their gurdwara (temple), preparing a buffet to celebrate the engagement of their dude-like, hip-hoppish son, Iggy (Sathya Sridharan), to the vivacious Lovi (Lipica Shah).
Alok Tewari, Shazi Raja. Photo: Joan Marcus.
We also meet Iggy’s mom, Deepa; her amusingly gossipy cousin, Simran Rayat (Angel Desai); Iggy’s distinguished-looking, bearded and turbaned dad, Sunny (Alok Tewari); Dadi Parminder (Sophia Mahmud), Sunny’s imperious, 90-year-old, Punjabi-speaking mother; and Vishal Singh (Nik Sadhnani), Iggy’s close friend and the ex of the play’s central character, Basminder a.k.a. “Boz” (Shazi Raja), the Batras’ independent-minded, 30-year-old daughter.
Angel Desai, Purva Bedi, Lipica Shah, Alok Tewari. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The festive mood breaks out into a couple of lively company dances (original music and sound design by Elisheba Ittoop) before things turn sour following Boz’s announcement of her intentions. Boz, preoccupied with memories of her late brother, Jol, who died after venturing to India, is also obsessed by the family legend of a pirate ancestor named Brownbeard, who transported beer for the East India Company. The latter’s influence is such that she even slips frequently into a gruff pirate accent with lots of growly “yars.” Infected with these men’s free spirits, she upsets the family apple cart by announcing she’s opening a bar in Madison.
Nate Miller, Shazi Raja. Photo: Joan Marcus.
When the play moves there, Boz meets a sweetly shlubby, helpful, beer aficionado, a white guy named Tim (Nate Miller). Tim’s unconvincingly naive questions about the exotic-seeming Boz’s heritage—as if she couldn’t possibly be American-born and -raised (regardless of all the verbal and physical clues she projects)—turn the play into a diverting but notably artificial lesson on Sikh identity. Then, in another clumsy contrivance, Vishal, unable to call because—if you can believe it, Boz, running a business, keeps her phone in the car—bursts in with news of the mass shooting.

Three months later, we’re back in the langar at another feast, this one to celebrate the temple's reopening and to commemorate the tragic victims. This tragedy, though, however catastrophic, is used largely as way of bringing the family—whose patriarch was killed—back together, including lots of comic byplay surrounding the now broken but possibly fixable engagement of Lovi and Iggy, and the initially uncomfortable presence of Tim, who is quickly bathed in the family’s warmth and stuffed with their delicacies.

Will Davis stages (and choreographs) with high spirits, including the overextended but elaborate pirate fantasy that opens Act Two. While fun for a while, it outlasts its welcome and does little to advance the plot. The actors are all good, Shazi Raja being especially promising, but everyone works a little too hard at being amusingly appealing, almost as if to to compensate for their often-exaggerated situations. I smiled more than I laughed but was consistently entertained, even during the more contrived and awkward parts.

One of the production’s distinguishing features is its presentation of characters of Indian descent who, while wearing traditional elements, like head scarves for the women, or, for the young men, bandannas, are familiarly “American” in everything they say and do. This extends from their accents, to the totally secular content of their conversations, regardless of their religious and cultural beliefs (other than the outsider Tim’s being required to wear a bandanna), whose specifics the play mostly ignores.
Sathya Sridharan, Lipica Shah, Nik Sadhnani, Angel Desai, Purva Bedi, Sophia Mahud. Photo: Joan Marcus.
In other words, aside, perhaps, from an early scene in which Deepa and Simran sit on a blanket to prepare food, an “old school” thing, according to Deepa, these could be people of any background, with concerns no different from those of anyone who couldn’t tell a Sikh from a Sioux. On the one hand, this could be a missed opportunity, while on the other it emphasizes the universality of these human beings and how relatively minor their other differences are. 
Sathya Sridharan, Shazi Raja. Photo: Joan Marcus.
India Pale Ale shoots off too many flares in its treatment of family relationships, ethnic identity, a mass shooting, piracy, beer, romantic complications, a woman’s search for independence from the confines of her heritage, food, and multicultural appreciation and understanding. Some of this mixture may not work but when I bit into that delicious samosa—so suggestive of a soft, slightly spicy, triangular knish—I instantly ingested the parts about food and multicultural appreciation.


Manhattan Theatre Club/New York City Center Stage 1
131 W. 55th St., NYC
Through November 18