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India Pale Ale

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - October 25, 2018

The Company
Photo by Joan Marcus

What India Pale Ale isn't good at is exposition. That, and organization. Jaclyn Backhaus's drama, an immersive plunge into the deep end of Punjabi culture as transplanted to the present-day U.S., has some rewards down the pike, specifically in the handsomeness of Manhattan Theatre Club's production and the revealing to us mainstreamers of an unfamiliar, singular subculture. You just have to take some unprepossessing side roads to get to all that.

After a splash of Indian-sounding music, we're on Neil Patel's stark stage, a plain black floor and a sparkly silver back wall. Basminder "Boz" Batra (Shazi Raja), almost 30 and, to her parents, worriedly unmarried, is in the family's Wisconsin backyard, digging a hole, well played by a trapdoor in the floor; it's oozing smoke, for some reason. She's talking to some unknown presence in an aye-me-hearties pirate-speak culled from old movies, for reasons that won't become clear for quite a while. She's seeking a buried talisman left to her by her late brother, though that, too, takes a while to comprehend. Boz is planning to escape her dull little Indian-American community for the glamorous far reaches of Madison, an hour away, where she plans to open a bar. She's saved up, she has some financial backing that's never explained, and she needs that filial talisman for good luck. This on the eve of the wedding of her excitable brother, Iggy (Sathya Sridharan), to the sensible Lovi (Lipica Shah). Meanwhile, in preparation for the langar, or pre-wedding party (the script carries a full-page glossary, never a good sign), Boz's mom, Deepa (Purva Bedi), is mopping up the langar hall as her cousin, Simran (Angel Desai), cooks up a storm. They're gossiping about their extended family, and it's small talk, very small. Backhaus may be trying to impress upon us the ordinariness of these people; if so, she succeeds all too well.

It is, to put it bluntly, not a fascinating brood. Boz's dad, Sunny (Alok Tewari), is hearty and fatherly, Deepa is practical and family-oriented. There's also Dadi (Sophia Mahmud), the nonagenarian matriarch, who's there to provide tart commentary. Only Boz has any compelling character quirks, and these take some time to unravel. She's sore because the family has invited her ex-boyfriend Vishal (Nik Sadhnani) to the gathering, a yo-dude-whatup sort of no particular distinction. And she's into all that pirate shtick because a pirate ancestor, Brownbeard, incited a mutiny on a beer ship a couple of centuries ago, a source of Batra pride. The festivities begin with a protracted dance — Will Davis, the hardworking director, did the choreography. There's talk of Fiona Apple and Tinder. There's a cute bit where Dadi offers a wedding toast in Punjabi, which Sunny strategically translates leaving out the offensive, opinionated parts. A few assorted Batras sing a pirate chanty. Boz springs her escape plan on everybody, to be met with several pages of dialog protesting it. "Dad," she counters, "we're not in, like, 1979 anymore." Scene Two.

Patel's set smartly turns into Boz's dive on the outskirts of Madison, which has been open a couple of weeks and isn't doing business. The only patron is Tim (Nate Miller). He's a somewhat dumb white guy in his 20s, and we love him. He gets Boz to explain some of the pirate motif and other matters that have been puzzling us up to now; she reels off some more Punjabi background and the whole history of India pale ale. Anyway, while Tim spikes the conversation with some unwittingly quasi-racist ramblings, he's clearly goodhearted and willing to help her bar survive its unpromising debut. Which is lucky, because Vishal bursts in with some devastating Act One Curtain news (accompanied by Elisheba Ittoop's elaborate pirate sound effects, for no reason I can figure). The news sends Boz rushing back home, as Tim soliloquizes, something a Tim would never do.

Up to now, we've been busy trying to parse the complicated Batra family structure and the multiple backstories and Boz's off-putting, hard-to-discern, vaguely-Irish pirate palaver. The latter continues at the top of the next act, but this time it's wonderful. We're in Boz's head, and what a colorful place that is, with Sunny impersonating Brownbeard, the rest of the cast tricked out in Arnulfo Maldonado's astounding pirate costumes, and Boz imagining that long-ago mutiny, an act of rebellion and resolve that mirrors her own decision to set out on her own. It goes on a bit long, but it's an aural and visual feast, and it's almost a disappointment to return to that langar hall.

Minor spoiler alert, but the family is dealing with a tragedy born of hate and stupidity, the kind we hear a lot about on the news these days. They're so matter-of-fact as they cook and clean and again prepare to receive a crowd, their coping mechanisms seem unnaturally strong, which makes the drama that much milder. Some more relationship conflicts get hashed out, and Deepa steps forward to break down the fourth wall and offer a can't-we-all-just-get-along speech. Honey, this is the basement of City Center, it's a largely subscription New York audience, and you're preaching to the choir.

This is followed by a small coup-de-theatre, better experienced than described, that sends us out happy and fulfilled despite all the tangled, often confusing elements that have preceded it. The cast, a real ensemble, is fine, though one might expect more individuality and personality from Raja, who has the meatiest role by far but seldom dominates her surroundings. Tewari is both a sturdy paternal figure and a rip-roaring pirate, Miller an adorable doofus.

Backhaus has talent, and India Pale Ale introduces us, however haphazardly, to a distinct and compelling culture. It makes a plea for tolerance that can't be overexposed, though it's sure getting plenty of exposure on current stages. You just wish it were laid out more clearly, and that the Batras possessed a few more eccentricities. Mopping floors and meaningless pop-culture allusions and petty familial arguments, bracing theater that ain't.

India Pale Ale
Through November 18
Manhattan Theatre Club at City Center Stage 1, 131 West 55th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: