nytheatre.com review by Allison Taylor
May 3, 2008
The always adventurous New Group should be applauded for producing Rafta, Rafta, if only because it indicates an impulse to tackle work outside the cultural mainstream and to reach new audiences. Playwright Ayub Khan-Din has adapted Bill Naughton's 1960s comedy All in Good Time, updating it for the present day and setting it in Britain amongst an Indian community. While the production itself might be uneven and sluggish at times, Rafta, Rafta contains a fine dose of heart and humor.
Rafta, Rafta centers around a newlywed couple and their respective sets of meddlesome parents. The financially unstable newlyweds, Atul and Vina, move in with the young man's parents—much to the frustration of Atul, whose father Eeshwar is a vain and blustery force to be reckoned with. The presence of the parents and a seemingly endless stream of interruptions prevents Atul from feeling completely, ahem, comfortable with his new wife. Six weeks and many an awkward night later, the marriage still has not been consummated. With the lovebirds' marriage now on the rocks, the parents discover the truth of what's been happening (or not been happening), and attempt to intervene as best they can before the Indian community hears the humiliating secret.
At its heart, Rafta, Rafta is a comedy, classic in its structural execution and farcical in its joke set-ups. The romantic mood one night is ruined when the couple hears the father using the bathroom; Atul's brother unabashedly flirts with his wife, thus playfully emasculating Atul; the mother forces Eeshwar to talk to his son about the "problem," much to Eeshwar's terror and our amusement. Director Scott Elliott executes these examples with a nice sense of awkwardness, only increasing the general charm of the play. Khan-Din fuels the comedy further by nicely depicting how tight-knit and traditional this Indian community is, making it clear that the secret is inevitably revealed. That awareness not only makes the adaptation from the 1960s to the present-day appropriate, but the stakes of the dilemma quite high.
But a comedy like this needs tightness as taut as a drum, and Khan-Din's overwritten text and Elliott's slothful pace prevent the play from proceeding at the speed for which it strives. At times overly naturalistic, many scenes get weighed down by everyday tasks—washing dishes, answering doors, cleaning, and so forth. In particular, Elliott halts the play's action during the after-wedding party, the first scene of the play, to show the families dancing, eating, and generally chit-chatting. This emphasis on naturalism not only slows the play down, but keeps Elliott from finding the right focus and tone, which should balance between the lightness of the humor and the genuine darkness of the content. The premise, after all, is a shade disturbing.
But nothing can stop Ranjit Chowdhry, as the father Eeshwar Dutt, from getting his chuckles. Chowdhry perfectly encapsulates this man who never realizes he one-ups everyone within sight, especially his hapless son. When he beats Atul in an arm-wrestling contest on the wedding night, Eeshwar's naïve exuberance and authentic belief that this is father-son-bonding balances the fact that he completely humiliates his son. Shuffling stiffly about the house and crabbily pontificating whenever anyone will listen, Chowdhry reveals Eeshwar's deserved pride in being a first-generation immigrant while still tapping into his oblivious arrogance.
Only his wife Lopa, as played by Sakina Jaffrey, can deflate his ego with a simple roll of her eyes or effortless sharp jab. And while Manish Dayal finds an appropriate shade of anger in Atul, his constant, indignant yelling does not get at the vulnerability and humiliation that the character must harbor underneath—not only from the interactions with his father, but from his failures in the bedroom. As his wife Vina, Reshma Shetty behaves with just enough sauciness to foreshadow her frustration (both emotional and sexual) that inevitably rises to the surface. As Vina's parents, Sarita Choudhury captures the uptight and harsh personality of the mother while still revealing her good intentions, and Alok Tewari fulfills the role of loving father without allowing his sweetness to make the mother into a demon by comparison.
Derek McLane's intricately realistic set of a two-floored house might feel a little old-hat in this season of multi-floored houses (August: Osage County and The Seafarer, just to name two), but it evokes a fitting sense of claustrophobia and lack of privacy. And while Jason Lyons's flashy lighting design feels a little too aggressive for this intimate play, Shane Rettig's sound design (though loud) nicely uses upbeat, pop Indian music by DJ Rekha to further fill out the play's cultural context.
Indeed, while the production may not be entirely successful, Rafta, Rafta is refreshing in its ambition to take a simple, comically classic set-up and apply it to a cultural group too often neglected on New York stages.