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Theatre in Review: Eve's Song (Public Theater)/India Pale Ale (Manhattan Theatre Club)

Top: Kadijah Raquel and Ashley D. Kelly. Bottom: Shazi Raja. Photo: Joan Marcus

The challenge -- the sheer, debilitating stress -- of being the member of an ethnic minority living in a white-dominant America is explored in two new works, each of which highlights, in a different way, how intractable the subject can be onstage.

Patricia Ione Lloyd, author of Eve's Song, has an ear for dialogue and a wicked sense of humor; also, after a year of plays about the plight of young black men in America, here at last is a writer who expands that vision to include harassment of and violence against black women. Eve's Song is about many things -- too many, in fact -- but, in its best moments, it offers a sharply drawn study of a middle-class black family under stress.

The family is presided over by Deborah, who rides herd on her children, preaching the gospel of good manners with an intensity not seen since June Cleaver hung up her apron and put away her pearls. At a series of family dinners with her son, Mark, and daughter, Lauren, pleasant conversation is meant to reign, and no one may leave the table without carefully restoring his or her chair to its assigned place. In one of the most amusing bits contributed by the director, Jo Bonney, all three sit down to the table, unfurling their napkins with military precision.

Despite Deborah's program of enforced politesse, the dinner table is a staging area for some amusingly catty sniping between Lauren, who is nineteen, and Mark, who is fourteen. Mark, in his ever-so-helpful voice, says, "Lauren, when you use the family computer you should really clear the browser history...I saw the website 'Oprah Winfrey's recommended sex toys.'" ("I really should clear my browser," Deborah confesses to us, while the sibling battle rages.) "You were an accident," Lauren tells Mark, by way of making conversation. Without missing a beat, he replies, "Was I? Or was I a miracle?" When, during a discussion about a proposed family movie night, Mark admits he doesn't like scary films, Lauren says, "Those movies don't have anything to do with us after the first five minutes, when the black friend gets killed or eaten by a monster -- and you don't have any friends, so you're all good."

There are, however, deeper disturbances at work: Deborah is recently divorced and struggles to make ends meet; on the job, she must put up with sexual harassments that double as public humiliations. Lauren has come out as a lesbian, about which Deborah is less than thrilled. Nor does she have much use for Lauren's first girlfriend, Upendo Haki Supreme, née Tiffany, a community organizer with a confident, confrontational manner. Just as the upstage wall of Riccardo Hernandez's artfully stylized set is splitting open, the family is falling apart. As their misfortunes mount, the constant work of showing a "nice" face to the world becomes too difficult to bear. When Deborah is pulled away from a work meeting to attend to Mark, who has been caught fighting at school, the most damning thing she can tell her son is, "Today you made me what they think I am."

Eve's Song has many gripping passages, especially when the characters are baring their souls directly to the audience, but the playwright hasn't provided a central conflict to tie everything together, so it moves in an oddly stately fashion through a series of scenes that are more lie illustrations of an argument than the building blocks of drama. (She also provides a trio of Spirit Women, who wander in and out, unseen, speaking of the violence done to them; the expand the theme but do little to heighten the central situation.) Also, most of the authentically dramatic moments take place offstage, to be recounted later, a strategy that slows things down and gives the actors little to work with. Thus, a play filled with menace and the threat of violence feels strangely becalmed; even when the family is forced to undergo a drastic realignment, the turn of events isn't nearly as moving as it should be. Framing a domestic comedy-drama inside a larger sociopolitical context and decorating it with magic realist elements has resulted in an ungainly theatrical hybrid. It's easy to admire the ambitiousness of this approach while counting the ways it falls short.

De'Adre Aziza brings considerable authority to the role of Deborah, especially when she lets down her guard and reveals the bitterness within. As Lauren, Mark, and Upendo, Kadijah Raquel, Karl Green, and Ashley D. Kelley perform with commitment and comic flair, but their characters are wanly drawn. The production design, including Hernandez's decaying interior, Lap Chi Chu's varied lighting, Emilio Sosa's on-target costumes, and Elisheba Ittoop's sound design -- especially some upsetting incidents of gunplay -- is well suited to these comic-tragic, realistic-stylized goings on. Special mention goes to Hana S. Kim's projection design, which creates auras around the Spirit Women that highlight the violence being done to them. Eve's Song is a messy work by a new talent; she's the sort of writer the Public should be encouraging, but let's hope for better from her the next time out.

In any case, the problems of Eve's Song pale next to those of India Pale Ale. It's dismaying to encounter a playwright whose heart is so firmly in the right place yet has so little idea of how to dramatize the story she wants to tell; this is the unhappy situation of Jaclyn Backhaus. Her heroine, Basminder, also known as Boz, is the daughter of an American family of South Asian descent that practices the Sikh religion. The first scene hinges on the thirtyish Boz trying to tell her parents that she wants to move to Madison, Wisconsin, an hour away from her hometown, to open a bar. The action unfolds at an engagement party for Boz's brother, whose best man is also Boz's ex. There are many comings and goings and sitcom-style exchanges, and yet, for all the busyness onstage, the play struggles to make clear Boz's relationship to her tradition-minded clan. This scene also introduces the unfortunate pirate motif, rooted in the family lore that a long-ago ancestor took part in the beer trade between England and India.

In the second scene, the action shifts to Boz's bar in Madison, which has a pirate-themed décor and only one customer: a doughy, clueless, yet genial white guy named Tim. He pesters Boz with various borderline-insulting questions about her background, for which he gets a lengthy talking-to about the difficulties of being an outsider in one's home country, even generations after one's family has arrived. The speech allows Boz to make some good points ("We're like as midwestern as you can get, we're all Packers fans, we played hockey in grade school, we're all farmers") but it gradually comes to feel like a public service announcement. The author's themes are stated baldly, but the plot and characters are all over the place. As the play approaches intermission, it has yet to develop a distinctive dramatic profile.

The first act ends with news of a terrible family tragedy that sends Boz hurtling back home, but, before arriving there, we must endure a lengthy pirate fantasy that, I suppose, is meant to represent her displaced anxieties for her loved ones and guilt about leaving them. In reality, it is an excruciatingly coy fantasy sequence featuring the entire company in buccaneer garb, speaking in ludicrous accents. It is difficult to think of a more tiresome, time-wasting sequence in any other major production this season. The final scene jumps ahead to a kind of memorial service at the Sikh religious center, where most of the play's ruptured relationships are patched up with little fuss and the play ends with samosas distributed to the audience and the cast, who address the audience with questions like "What has to change in our society to allow you to love someone whose culture differs from yours, who shares your patch of land, your earth?"

Trouble is, India Pale Ale is all exhortation and no drama. The family relationships are not explored, and most of the characters are one-dimensional: The women gossip about relationships while making food, and Boz's brother and ex-boyfriend are a pair of stereotypical bros. Her brother, Iggy, explaining Tinder to an older female relative, says, "You, like, swipe to meet hot peeps and swipe to like reject peeps." In many ways, the play turns on Boz's relationship to her father, but the character barely exists. Backhaus is careless with other details. Boz announces that she has amassed a set of backers for her new bar, but it isn't at all clear how she did this, living at home in a small town; when crisis strikes, she flees the bar, throwing the keys to the place at Tim, whom she has just met, telling him to lock up. Miraculously, he tracks her down weeks later.

In a cast that includes the capable Purva Bedi as Boz's mother, Angel Desai as her cousin, Sathya Sridharan as Iggy, and Alok Tewari as Sunny, the clan's patriarch, everyone is fine, but nobody makes a strong impression. Shazi Raja throws herself into the role of Boz but has remarkably little to work with. Will Davis' direction is pacey but lacking in nuance. The production design is rather better. Neil Patel's set features an upstage wall of beer bottles that, backlit by Ben Stanton, creates many colorful optical effects. Arnulfo Maldonado's costumes, pirate outfits and all, are solidly done; Dave Bova's wig designs help turn the company into a convincing covey of Long John Silvers. In addition to her original music, Elisheba Ittoop's sound design includes storms at sea and the unnerving creaks of a vintage sailing vessel.

India Pale Ale means to explain something vital about the lives of its characters, but it ends up tripping over its own words. This is a very pale ale, indeed -- more like weak tea. -- David Barbour

(9 November 2018)

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