Huck & Holden
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 24, 2006
On the basis of his glib, shallow one-act play Huck & Holden, I'd say that Rajiv Joseph has a great future ahead of him writing TV sitcoms. For that's what this determinedly crowd-pleasing comedy feels like to me: whatever depth and intellectual explorations that Joseph may have originally had in mind for this piece when he christened it seem to have been squelched in favor of perky sex-comedy antics. Which is a shame.
The play begins with Navin, an Indian student newly arrived at an American college, inquiring at the library for the book "Huck & Holden." He's required to write a paper about it for English class, and he can't find the book. He does find, however, Michelle, an attractive African American sophomore who works in the library (not very hard, apparently) and has just discovered the Kama Sutra. When she finds out that Navin is from the same country as the sex manual, she's suddenly interested in him; and when he comes back to the library bearing the information that he in fact needs two books—The Catcher in the Rye and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—it's very clear where this play is going.
There follow a couple of cute scenes in which Navin is "visited" by "Holden Singh," an amalgam of the hero of Salinger's novel and an old friend from Calcutta. This fantasy figure is essentially Fonzie to Navin's Richie Cunningham, helping the shy and inexperienced Navin plot out his courtship of Michelle. Now, I was looking forward to a second version of the spectral "Singh," perhaps in overalls and a straw hat, once Navin started reading his Mark Twain—but such does not come to pass. The titular conceit of the play (a good one, that Navin will learn about his new country by seeing it through the eyes of two of its iconic rebels) is cast aside about 15 minutes in. "Holden Singh" suggests that Navin try to steal Michelle's necklace from her tough-guy boyfriend Torry, which leads to a silly scene in which Navin pretends to be a pizza delivery guy who just happened to pick up one of Torry's porn magazines, which leads to a rather crude sequence in which Torry teaches Navin about "ass-waxing."
Eventually, the Hindu goddess Kali shows up, and things really start to defy credibility.
There's no denying that Joseph has talent: he can craft a funny scene and write a humorous line with the best of them. The play is sharply directed by Giovanna Sardelli, and the five actors turn in polished performances (Nilaja Sun, as Kali, might perhaps be more effective if she toned down her attention-getting antics). It's not unentertaining, but it doesn't finally say anything terribly cogent or interesting; and I think it had a real opportunity to do just that. So Huck & Holden is a disappointment from where I sit. But Joseph may well be on his way to the career he's looking for.