Thursday, May 08, 2008

Rafta, Rafta

Somewhere between the second and third whiskey drunk in celebration of his son's wedding, Eeshwar Dutt blurts out how much he's in favor of integration. It's a fitting thing for him to say (though it's got little to do with the plot) because Rafta, Rafta is little more than an ethnic adaptation of Bill Naughton's All in Good Time. (Irony: that play was made into a film; there are talks to do the same to this one.) The resulting comedy feels forced, as does the drama. Scott Elliott does his best to dress things up with bright lights, cultural knickknacks, and his use of Derek McLane's two-story set, but the story isn't big enough to fill the house, nor is the acting firm enough to make it seem lively.

The excellent first scene, itself almost as long as the rest of the play, shows the production's potential. Atul (Manish Dayal) has just been married, and yet his father is making him carry leftovers into the house before the party can continue. Then, as the guests arrive, Eeshwar begins teasing his son, an act made crueler (but more human) by the fun-loving obliviousness that Ranjit Chowdhry brings to the role. Atul is far from the center of attention on this, his day of days, and he sits sullenly as his father berates him for not being enough of a man to dance the bhangra. Atul's new wife, Vina (Reshma Shetty) laughs a bit; even his mother, Lopa (Sakina Jaffrey) gets caught up as Atul and Eeshwar arm-wrestle. The room is abuzz with energy, from the women gossiping in the kitchen to the men drinking in the living room, and there are enough distractions both to make this seem like a happy family, and also like a well-made play.

From there, however, the scenes are shorter and more focused on the problems under the surface; Act II, if you will, of The Fantasticks. Six weeks pass in the blink of a stage light, and what started as an awkward wedding night -- imagine trying to be romantic when you can hear your father pissing in the next room -- becomes more serious, with Atul unable to perform. It's a clear manifestation of his father issues, but rather than resolve them, he broods and leaves his wife to complain to her parents, Laxman and Lata (Alok Tewari and Sarita Choudhury, two waxen character actors who occasionally flicker to life). These scenes all feel a bit silly, and the tense mood doesn't work well with Ayub Khan-Din's jokey script: for instance, what are we to make of Atul's brother, Jai (Satya Bhabha), taking Vina out every night, especially after we catch him talking to a half-naked Vina? And how are we supposed to take seriously the thought that Atul might be gay when the parents can't even bring themselves to say the word "intercourse"? By the end, Rafta, Rafta accepts that it's farce and tries to have some fun with itself: Lopa single-handedly stops anyone from going upstairs, for Vina has brought Atul "a cup of coffee."

There are plenty of good moments, but the play isn't cohesive, and it's considerably limited at times by the acting, which ranges from the passably funny Ugly Betty-like overemoting (Bhabha and Choudhury), to the rigidly dull self-seriousness of Dayal, not to mention the villainy of Sean T. Krishnan (fresh out of some Boogie Nights-like affair), who, as Atul's boss, Jivaj Bhatt, has nothing to ground his perverted malice in. Only Atul's father is given a shred of deeper dignity, and Chowdhry makes room beneath his boisterous charm to deal with real culturally repressed issues. (He's also the only thing about the show that seems new and worth displaying.) Personally, I'd rather see an original show struggle and fail, like Chuck Mee's cultural smörgåsbord Queens Boulevard, than to see something like Rafta, Rafta succeed at mediocrity.

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