Not Rochelle, Rochelle

Monday, April 21st, 2008 | All Things, Arts

At Theatre Row for the American premiere of Ayub Khan-Din’s Rafta, Rafta… directed by Scott Elliott — a last minute replacement for Kevin Elyot’s Mouth to Mouth, which The New Group will be presenting in the fall. This the second of Khan-Din’s plays to be produced here; the company staged East is East in 1999.

Rafta, Rafta… is based on Bill Naughton’s 1965 comedy All in Good Time; here, the action is set within the Anglo-Indian community and moved to working-class Bolton. Khan-Din’s play was a critical hit at London’s National Theatre last year and went on to win the 2008 Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Comedy. (Stateside critique has been similarly favorable.)

The title is culled from a Hindi song, and means “slowly, slowly.” The lyrics, as translated in the program by professors Faisal Devji and Rachel Dwyer:

Slowly, slowly she became part of me,
First my life, then the life of my life, and then life of life itself.

After their wedding feast — an overlong evening involving two sets of families, copious whisky drinking, spirited bhangra dancing, and a father-son arm-wrestling match — Atul Dutt and Vina Patel (Manish Dayal and Reshma Shetty in their fine Off-Broadway debuts) embark on their wedding night at Atul’s parents’ house. It soon becomes apparent, however, that their new home is not the ideal place to begin a new marriage: with the groom’s parents a thin bedroom wall away, their loving union remains unconsummated after six long weeks. When word leaks out after a frustrated Vina confides in her mother (Sarita Choudhury, whom we saw last fall as Frida Kahlo), some hilarious, but cringe-worthy interference ensues as both sets of concerned parents convene to decide how to best tackle the delicate situation.

The surface farce is stripped away to expose past wounds and some deeply-held resentments among the older married couples — what is it Tolstoy said of unhappy families? And as the often-obtuse and domineering patriarch (Ranjit Chowdhry) says of life, in a rare moment of reflection: “It might make you laugh… but one day it’ll make you bloody cry.

No worries: this being a comedy, a happy ending is all but assured. That the play manages to feel both exotic and familiar is to the playwright’s credit. (He is currently working on the film adaptation.)

In addition to the impressive bi-level set by Derek McLane, the play features original music by Basement Bhangraâ„¢ founder DJ Rekha at rousing volumes.

Rafta, Rafta… is playing a limited engagement at the Acorn Theatre through June 21, 2008.

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