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A CurtainUp Review
Rafta, Rafta

Just tap on the wall any time of the night. I'm a very light sleeper!.—Eeshwar cheerfully reminding his new daughter-in-law that he and his wife are only in the next room if they need anything. Needless to say, that proximity is exactly what they don't need.
Rafta. Rafta
Reshma Shetty and Manish Dayal, the bride and groom (Photo: Monique Carboni)
To paraphrase the famous commercial about Levy's rye bread, you definitely do not have to be Indian to have a rip-roaring time with the Dutts and the Patels of Ayub Khan-Din's Rafta, Rafta. The New Group's artistic director Scott Elliott has given the Olivier award winning family comedy as expert a staging as he gave the playwright's East is East. The splendid cast has us laughing up a storm even as we're touched by the poignancy and universality that lifts this way above the Bollywood style sitcom it might otherwise be.

As Ayub Khan-Din has managed to wrest laughs from essentially tragic events and add darker shades to the humor, he has also brought off that rare feat of creating something brand new and fresh from an existing source. That source is a 1963 play All in Good Time by Bill Naughton based on his home town in Lancashire and set in a close-knit Northern community (also a film, The Family Way, with John Mills and his daughter Hayley).

As extended to an equally close-knit Indian family and set in Bolton, an area heavily populated by Asians, the play entertainingly documents the life of an immigrant community whose younger generation is the first British born and schooled generation. Since the story revolves around a wedding, the very different wedding gifts given to the father and son of the Dutt family—a water buffalo for Eeshwar (Ranjit Chowdrhy)), the senior Dutt, and a Blackberry to his Anglicized son Atul (Manish Dayal)—sum up the changes wrought by this family's move from an agrarian life in India to an industrialized modern world.

Though the humor now includes numerous astute references particular to this culture ("There are people starving in India" as the thrifty Mr. Dutt's reason for bringing home the leftovers from the wedding party now resonates hilariously). The modernized and relocated story still revolves around the situation of the a young couple forced by the persistent problem of high housing costs to start married life living with the groom's family. Granted, Atul and Vina (Reshma Shetty) could have spent at least their wedding night in a hotel, but then we wouldn't have their ensuing ups and downs (if that sounds like a pun, it is) .

Things begin with a blast of bhangra music and the festively dressed wedding party entering the Dutt's two-story house for an at-home celebration before the bride and groom head for the bedroom to joyfully consummate their marriage. (The Dutt house is a wonderfully claustrophic two-story dollhouse creation by Derek McLane, with every room a kalaidescope of red, gold and fuchsia, and just a glimpse of the street outside). Given that the celebration signals father and son personality conflicts (the father, though affectionate, is domineering, opinionated and tends to put down his son). Add to Atu's tension after an evening dealing with his father's idea of a good time (which includes what Eeshwar considers the manly art of Bhangra dancing and arm wrestling) a childish prank by his brother Jai ( Satya Bhabha), and it's obvious that the wedding night is doomed to frustration rather than consummation.

The new title, Rafta, Rafta, Hindi for "slowly slowly," is an apt description of everything that follows. The wedding night fiasco stretches into six weeks and, as a gossipy item on a blog can spread like wild fire, so it is when Vina confides in her parents. Slowly but surely, as the parents get involved in saving their children's marriage, their own long festering issue are also brought to light.

Director Scott Elliot wisely does not obscure the poignancy of these humorously revealed fault lines in the Patel and Dutt marriages. And the actors strike a perfect balance between humor and seriousness.

We could easily dislike the opinionated yet often blind to his own shortcomings Eeshwar were it not for Ranjit Chowdhry's totally winning performance, a marvelously entertaining mixture of ebullient charm, self-importance and the pathos of a man who has difficulty relating to his son who, true to every immigrant father's dream, has become assimilated but in the process has become something of a stranger.

Even more endearing is his long-suffering wife Lopa (Sakina Jaffrey) for whom dealing with this family crisis is just the latest test of her considerable diplomatic skills —having dealt with the her husband's intense attachment to a male friend during their own honeymoon days, she will clearly be a force majeure in effecting the inevitable happy ending. As Lopa is able to see the innocence in Eeshwar's intense friendship, so she sees what's needed to insure her son's happiness and to connect him to his father.

While Ranjit Chowdrhy and Sakina Jaffrey have the roles that drive the comedy, Sarita Choudhury and Alok Tewari are also excellent as the bride's parents Lala and Laxman Patel. Choudhury can make a look speak a thousand disdainful words. Reshma Shetty and Manish Dayal completely win our sympathies as the sexually frustrated young couple. Sean T. Krishnan is properly obnoxious as the play's only unsympathetic character, Atul's boss, Jivaj Bhatt. Alison Wright is also good as his tough British wife. Utkarsh Ambudkar's Etash Tailor has a nice moment in the spotlight when he and Atul amusingly recreate a scene from one of the Bollywood movies they see in their jobs as projectionists at a local cinema.

Everything adds up to a truly fresh adaptation that successfully changes Western to Eastern culture and in the process loses none of the humor and is in fact richly original. In short, Khan-Din, Director Ellis and the cast have retained the qualities that made the original a hit, while putting their own very distinct stamp on this comic yet insightful portrait of a modern family which makes the more than two hours fly by faster than many a ninety-minute show.

To read our review of Khan-Din's East Is East, also directed by Elliott and designed by Derek McLane, go here. To read our London critic's review of the London production go here.

By Ayub Khan-Din
Directed by Scott Elliott
Cast: Sarita Choudhury (Lala Patel), Ranjit Chowdhry (Eeshwar Dutt), Sean T. Krishnan (Jivaj Bhatt), Alison Wright (Molly Bhatt), Alok Tewari (Laxman Patel), Reshma Shetty (Vina Patel), Manish Dayal (Atul Dutt), Satya Bhabha (Jai Dutt), Utkarsh Ambudkar (Etash Tailor), Sakina Jaffrey (Lopa Dutt)
Set Design by Derek McLane
Costume Design by Theresa Squire
Lighting Design by Jason Lyons,
Sound Design by Shane Rettig
Original music by DJ Rekha
Dialect Coach: Stephen Gabis
Stage Manager: Valerie A. Peterson Running Time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, including one intermission
The New Group @ The Acorn Theatre 410 West 42nd Street, between 9th & 10th Avenue (212) 279-4200
From 4/16/08; opening 5/08/08; closing 6/21/08--extended to 6/21/08.
Monday @ 8:00 PM, Tuesday @ 7:00 PM, Wednesday through Saturday @ 8:00 PM and Saturday @ 2:00 PM (matinee).
Tickets are $56.25.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 5/04/08 performance
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